By Joshua Nevitt
On Sunday, Oct. 12, I was able to serve a Mass of thanksgiving for the Equivalent Canonization of two Canadian saints celebrated in St. Peter’s Basilica by Pope Francis.
Both St. Marie of the Incarnation and St. Francois de Laval were missionaries from France to what was then known as New France — today part of Québec —in the 17th century. They were declared saints by Pope Francis in April.
Often, when the Holy Father celebrates these special Masses, the Vatican’s Office for Liturgical Celebrations tries to find altar servers that have a connection to the particular celebration. In this case, they turned to my seminary, the Pontifical North American College, which mainly hosts seminarians from the United States but also a handful of seminarians from Canada and Australia. (Msgr. James F. Checchio, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, is the college’s rector.)
Whenever the Vatican asks our college to provide servers for a papal event, the process is the same: a sign-up sheet is placed on the main bulletin board for those who would like the opportunity to serve with the Holy Father, and then a lottery is held to randomly select who will be the servers.
This time, the Vatican asked for 15 servers and about 30 seminarians, including myself, signed up.
Late Friday afternoon I received an email from the rector’s secretary telling me that I was one of the 15 selected! The instructions were simple: report to St. Peter’s the following morning for rehearsal.
On Saturday morning, Msgr. Guido Marini, the papal master of ceremonies, greeted us and led us in a prayer. Then we were lined up from tallest to shortest to determine which duties we would perform during the liturgy. Msgr. Marini came over and picked four of us, myself included, to serve Pope Francis directly. The others would carry the incense, cross and candles, and assist in the preparation of the altar.
The four of us who would serve the pope directly would hold the missal, the microphone, and also hold his miter — the tall, pointed ceremonial cap worn as part of liturgical dress — and crosier when he was not using them. I was assigned the role of miter bearer.
We ran through the Mass, learning our moves as we stood under Bernini’s 17th-century baldacchino, directly above the tomb of St. Peter. I could only imagine what it would be like just 24 hours later when Pope Francis would be celebrating Mass just feet away from us.
On Sunday morning, I woke up early and headed to St. Peter’s Basilica for our 8:30 a.m. meeting time. We would have time to run through the Mass one final time. We met in a curtained off section of the basilica, in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta and close to the altar where St. John Paul II is buried.
After our second rehearsal there was still some time before the Holy Father would arrive. I took advantage of the privacy to pray the rosary in front of the Pieta, which is usually crowded with tourists.
Soon, we were vesting in our cassocks and surplices, and me in the vimpa, the shawl worn over an altar server’s shoulders which he uses to hold a bishop’s miter or crosier. We were lined up in front of the Pieta and before long we heard the clicks of cameras as we saw the white figure of Pope Francis round the corner from a small sacristy off to the side.
He smiled and greeted each of us with a hearty “Buongiorno!” as he went down the line of servers and shook our hands.
The Holy Father finished greeting us and then went back into the small sacristy to vest for Mass. After he had finished vesting, Pope Francis spent about 10 minutes in the sacristy praying in silence. When he left the sacristy and the procession began, the three other servers and I walked behind him up the center aisle.
One could tell that he was praying the whole way; even the crowds murmuring, calling his name, and taking pictures didn’t disturb his prayer.
The Mass went smoothly, just like we had practiced. We served for the pope, we prayed with him, and with him and so many Canadian Catholics we celebrated North America’s newest saints. Before we knew it, the Mass had ended and we were once again walking down the nave of St. Peter’s back toward the Pieta.
Each of us received a rosary and a holy card as a memento of our day. Our time with Pope Francis may have been over, but it encouraged me to follow the example of Sts. Marie of the Incarnation and Francois de Laval, spreading the Gospel message wherever God calls me.
Joshua Nevitt from Our Lady of Peace Parish in Williamstown is a seminarian for the Diocese of Camden. He is in second theology at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.