While on vacation in Bolivia this summer to visit my partner’s parents, I attended a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis, spiritual leader of the Catholic church. My trip to Bolivia just happened to correspond with the papal visit to three Latin American countries: Ecuador, Bolivia, and Paraguay earlier in July.
When my mother-in-law, Tere Anzoleaga, heard the pope was coming to our town of Santa Cruz, Bolivia, she started making plans for us to see him.
I didn’t wear the traditional “Sunday best” to see Pope Francis as one might expect; as my mother-in-law’s trusted escort, I had been instructed to watch over her amidst the expected 1 million church attendees. I knew the crowds would be massive and that resources for an event of this magnitude may be limited. I wanted to (as the Boy Scouts say) “Be prepared,” for the unexpected.
My attire did not consist of designer clothes and fancy shoes. I dressed comfortably with the expectation that I might have to assist my mother-in-law through an urban jungle without access to a taxi, food or water. With my experience as a mountain hiker, I prepared my backpack with enough supplies to last us at least 24 hours in the city “just in case.”
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On the morning of the Mass, we were dropped off at 6 a.m. (while it was still dark) about a mile away from our target, and I guided Tere through the empty streets and four security checkpoints.
Law enforcement officers in Bolivia don’t normally carry guns, and gun ownership is also outlawed for Bolivian citizens. With influence of all the tragic shootings here in the United States, I did feel some concern about the safety of the event and even began noticing several points in the police barricades that seemed vulnerable.
Shortly before the Mass started, I noticed some conflict with the people on the outside, beyond the police barricades, who weren’t able to get tickets. Somehow, a crowd of over 1,000 people or so broke through the first three checkpoints. People were swinging their arms and even holding chairs and stools above their heads. The police line was slowly getting pushed back; they were about 50 yards from where we were sitting.
Eventually, they broke through the barricade and what started out as a peaceful and holy event suddenly looked like a Bolivian “Black Friday.”
I saw a sea of people stampeding in and panicked. I grabbed my mother-in-law and led her onto the choir and orchestra stage. Never mind that we didn’t have the credentials to be there; I had to keep her safe.
As the people ran in and filled up every available square inch of real estate, things started calming down. Nobody called the police to remove the ones who were there without the appropriate clearance, and those who were able to get past those four police barricades were allowed to stay for the Pope’s Mass. I eventually guided my mother-in-law back to her seat. The Mass began, and she was so excited, she stood on her chair the entire Mass while she held my hand for balance.
When you consider the context of the event, it makes sense. There is an extremely high rate of poverty in Bolivia. Religion is extremely important. The people wanted to see their Papa, and were willing to defy law enforcement to do it. With humble yet forceful intentions and despite the perceived laws they were breaking, they had honest hearts.
Despite their economic and political situations, a million people got what they wanted that day. A million people set their sights on one person. For that one hour, an entire city demonstrated an outpouring of love for one person; they participated in a rare holy ritual and received a special, once-in-a-lifetime blessing. Whether or not you are a believer, it was a sight to behold.
Clare Anzoleaga teaches at Fresno City College.