How I became a pilgrim

May 10, 2011

I grew up in a country with deep Catholic traditions. I was just a year old in 1978 when Polish cardinal Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II. It was a huge surprise in the then‐communist country, a satellite of the Soviet Union, that a son of Polish soil could become the head of the Catholic Church – which was painfully divided by the Iron Curtain.

Over the years, it became a natural feeling that the pope was Polish. The words ‘pope’ and ‘Pole’ becoming synonyms in my mind. John Paul II visited Poland eight times as the pontiff but I only had one chance to see him live when his papa‐mobile passed my home in 1991. I was 14 years old and took a picture of the event.

Unfortunately, during my professional career I never took a picture of Pope John Paul II. My first such assignment came only after the late pope passed away and I was sent to Rome for his funeral. It was a really hard time with no sleep, no time for eating or bathing. I just wandered about taking pictures of thousands of pilgrims sleeping along the Vatican streets and waiting for several days to attend the funeral ceremony. The air was full of grief. I also queued for hours to get to the St.Peter’s Basilica following an endless stream of people who wanted to honor John Paul II and to take a picture of his body exhibited to the public.

Six years later, it was clear to me that I had to capture pictures from the historic moment of John Paul II’s beatification. I wanted to show the emotions of people traveling from Poland to Rome for the ceremony that was bringing their countryman closer to sainthood. So, I decided to travel together with pilgrims by train from Warsaw to the Vatican. A dedicated train with some 800 pilgrims ‐ including six priests, nuns, families, youths and the elderly ‐ left a Warsaw station on Friday evening and headed for a 27 hour journey to the Vatican.

The trip was not a luxurious one with seating for eight people in each compartment, but a deep religious experience was more important for these people who were well prepared for the inconveniences of the ride. They prayed together and sang religious songs until they slept on mats covering the train’s floors.

How I became a pilgrim – journey to JPII beatification mass. from Kacper Pempel on Vimeo.

I woke up after 3 hours of sleep on the floor of my compartment. I had to get a good spot in the restaurant car. First, I had breakfast there and then in the same place an improvised mass was organized at around 8.30am. Pilgrims gathered in the restaurant car, others prayed while listening to the priest over a speaker system on the train. During the mass, priests offered Holy Communion as they walked from one compartment to the next down the whole train.

My camera shutter worked discreetly at all times. While doing my work, I made acquaintances with several people, who were ready to share their bed with me for another two‐hour nap before we arrived at the destination – San Petro station in the Vatican City at 0:10 am on Sunday. The pilgrims were getting ready, preparing their backpacks, banners and clothes for a long day.

On a regular day a 10‐minute walk takes you from the train station to St.Peter’s Square, but this day was far from ordinary. We’d been walking around passing by thousands of other pilgrims sleeping at the Ponte Vittorio Emanuele Bridge and then I realized how tired and sleepy I was after the train ride. But that was just the beginning. We waited ten more hours among the crowd for the beatification mass, woken every now and then by gates opening on Via Della Conciliazione to allow a number of pilgrims through and closer to the main square.

Thousands waited – sleeping on the ground or even while standing. They covered every inch of the area so it was difficult for me to walk around to take pictures. You could hear languages from all over the world mixing in the air when a French and a Polish group started to cheer jointly: “Vive la Papa!” And everybody envied an Italian group making the best use of their portable coffee machine…

Without the use of toilets and no access to water or food, some people had to seek medical assistance after another several hours. Tired and lost in a sea of crowds, we passed the final part of Villa Della Conciliazione moving several meters over three hours before we finally got to the square. I had to find my group of Polish pilgrims, which I lost in the sea of people. I left my backpack with an American group and started to walk through the crowded square between people sleeping and resting on mats on every inch of the ground. Finally, I found my Polish group. At 10 am as the mass began, there was no sign of tiredness, which changed into prayerful concentration and religious reflection.

After a two day journey with 6 hours of sleep in total I had to concentrate and do my work. It was not so easy, with no chance to move and catch what I had planned – the reactions of people as the beatification of the late Pope John Paul II was announced.

At the end of the mass I returned to the American pilgrims to collect my backpack. But they had given it to the organizers during the mass. Only with the help of an American priest was I finally reunited with the bag, which had been left lying on a nearby electricity box. The priest said we had to thank divine providence for finding it. I discovered later that the beatification mass had taken place on the Sunday of Divine Mercy ‐ a feast officially instituted by John Paul for the Catholic Church in 2000.

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