Just ahead of the Papal Conclave, the so called “Room of Tears” popped up quite a bit in many news stories and reflections, as reporters began marking the days ahead of the pope’s election. In this room, we were reminded, the newly-elected pope dresses in a fresh white cassock, signs his papal name, and prays for the first time as the new Vicar of Christ on Earth. The story goes that the man, who only minutes before was chosen for this momentous ministry, is so overwhelmed with joy and some trepidation that he cannot help but cry.
I have been inside this room.
The opportunity came back in January while I was on the Feminine Beauty in the Arts Pilgrimage. Its culmination was a private tour of the Sistine Chapel. While the others admired Michelangelo’s masterpiece, I asked for and was granted entrance into the Room of Tears (when you are looking at the Last Judgment, the door is just to the left of the altar).
It’s a remarkably simple room, especially compared to the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel on the other side of the door. When I walked in, there was a desk directly in front of me (where he first signs his papal name), a small red parlor couch on my right, and an alcove with a window on my left. I was told that when the election takes place, they’ll place a kneeler in that alcove for the new Holy Father to pray.
That’s it. The room is smaller than my living room. It has plain floors, no famous works of art on the walls, no fancy furniture. Unadorned, that’s where the pope first comes to grips with the fact that the Holy Spirit has chosen him as the successor to Peter. And the Holy Spirit was palpable in that room.
My escort, Fr. Mark, gave me a blessing and together we said a prayer for our Holy Father, and then we walked back into the grand chapel outside. We were only in the Room of Tears for a few minutes, but it is the most treasured memory I have of Rome – one of my most treasured memories ever.
One thing that strikes me, as I reflect on the experience now, is that the room goes against all the conventional ideas of the papacy being largely pomp and circumstance. That’s not to say that there isn’t some glamour involved in being pope: For heaven’s sake, he’s elected in one of the most magnificently beautiful chapels ever created, he lives in one of the most splendid buildings ever erected, and he’s followed by thousands of people wherever he goes.
But I submit to you that the true papacy is found in the Room of Tears.
It reminds me of the story in 1 Kings 19: God passes by Elijah’s cave – not in a strong and violent wind, not in an earthquake or a fire, but in a “light silent sound.” The humility of God, the God who was humble enough to become man, is mirrored in the man chosen to lead His bride, the Church. Nowhere, in my experience, have I felt the truth of that statement more than in the Room of Tears.
And in no man have I seen that same truth portrayed than in Pope Francis.
I’ll never forget the feeling I got as I passed between the two vastly different spaces – something you could almost liken to claustrophobia. If I, a mere pilgrim, could sense the weightiness of the transition through that doorway, I can’t imagine what our newly-elected pope encountered in that moment.
I feel very close to our new Holy Father because of the few moments I spent in the Room of Tears. I will never forget to pray for Pope Francis.
Anna Mitchell is the news director and anchor for the “Son Rise Morning Show” on the EWTN Global Catholic Radio Network.
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