An Audience with the Pope: How to secure one, what to wear, what to do, and what not to do.

An Audience with the Pope; Visiting Vatican City

Audiences with the pope at Vatican City occur in five forms: the Papal Blessing; the General Audience; the Special Audience; the Private Audience; and Mass celebrated by His Holiness.

The Papal Blessing

The Papal Blessing occurs at 12:00 noon on Sundays—if the pope is in residence at the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City. The Holy Father appears at the window of his private apartment and speaks to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square. He extends greetings in several languages, then delivers a speech, thereafter leading the crowd in the praying of the Angelus, a Catholic devotion commemorating the Incarnation. The pope then blesses those in attendance. During the blessing, Catholics make the sign of the cross, some kneeling directly onto the Square in the process. The entire Audience lasts approximately 20 minutes.

Vatican City is one of Christendom’s most sacred sites, and it should be treated as such. Today, because of security concerns, all visitors to Vatican City must go through security scanners (similar to airports). Pen knives, cork screws, scissors, etc., are not allowed. Mobile phones and recording devices are usually allowed. And, of course, texting and telephone calls should be suspended throughout the duration of the Audience.

Once within Vatican City, one should conduct oneself as if within a church. No seating is offered, and neither tickets nor reservations are required to attend a Papal Blessing; but decorum, beginning with respectful dress, must be observed. Though the least formal of all papal audiences, and though Rome, especially in the months of June, July, and August, can be very hot, dignified attire is required. Conservative “tourist attire” or “city attire” is appropriate. Sundresses (typically exposing the shoulders and cleavage) and tank tops (sleeveless T-shirts) are not allowed—unless body-exposing areas are covered throughout the visit with a scarf or shawl. Shorts are specifically prohibited (though exceptions are sometimes made on extremely hot days). Short-sleeve shirts are permissible, but long sleeves are regarded as more appropriate. Today, women are allowed to wear pants, but they must be long or capri-length. Jeans may be worn. Dresses and skirts must cover the knees. Women need not cover their heads. Because the Papal Blessing occurs outdoors, men wearing hats are allowed to keep on their hats, though it is recommended that men’s hats be removed during the recitation of the Angelus and Blessing.

General Audience (Udienza Generale)

Except for when the pope is traveling, the General Audience takes place each Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., at St. Peter’s Square (Piazza San Pietro); at Castel Gandolfo during the month of August when the pope is vacationing; and inside Hall Paul VI (Aula Paulo Sesto), which seats approximately 6,300 people, during the winter months and on extremely hot days. [On days forecast to be very hot, the Audience is sometimes scheduled for 10:00 a.m., at the Square, thereby availing those in attendance of cooler morning-time temperatures]. A General Audience usually lasts about two hours. Tickets are free of charge and must be reserved in advance. Generally, only ticket-bearing persons are admitted to a General Audience. Efforts are made to seat groups together.

Requests for General Audience tickets should be made in writing via fax or traditional mail to:

Prefect

Pontifical Household

00120 Vatican State

Europe

Fax: +39 066988 5863

Visitors from the United States have the additional options of requesting tickets from:

The U.S. Bishops’ Office

Via dell’ Umilità, 30

00187 Rome

Italy

Tel.: +39 066900 1821

or

online via the Church of Santa Susanna at www.santasussana.org

Requests should include:

-The names of the persons wishing to attend the Audience (For groups larger than 10, the number of persons in the group);

-The date of the Audience;

-(Additional information about the applicant’s parish involvement and reasons for his pilgrimage to Rome is optional).

Tickets should be collected (typically from the Swiss Guards) the day before the Audience. Generally, tickets are collected at the Bronze Doors, situated to the right of St. Peter’s Basilica.

A special section of the Audience is designated for newlyweds (“sposi novelli”). To qualify as a newlywed couple, the couple must have been married in a Catholic Church within two months of the Audience they wish to attend; carry with them a copy of the Sacramental Marriage Certificate signed by their parish priest (or fax it when requesting the tickets); and attend the Audience dressed in wedding attire. (Obviously, a bride married in a cumbersome dress with, for example, a cathedral train, would not wear her actual wedding gown and then have to make her way through a crowd of thousands with her train dragging behind her! She would, instead, wear a much simpler wedding gown or a bridal suit, a short veil or a hat, and carry a small, manageable bouquet of fresh flowers). Newlyweds should make their request for tickets with the Prefect at the Papal Household (See above). A fax number should be included in the request so that the Prefect can send, via fax, the letter that will allow the newlyweds to claim their ticket at Vatican City. At the end of the Audience, when the pope gives his general blessing, he will specifically bless the newlyweds for a happy wedded life.

Groups of larger than 10 persons are encouraged to provide the following information:

-Name of parish, school, or organization;

-Name of priest-leader/group-leader;

-Number of persons in the group;

-City and state from which the group originates;

-(Choirs that wish to sing [for 45 seconds] for the Holy Father should make their request in advance).

Otherwise, the General Audience is a first-come, first-admitted event, with many people standing throughout. (Each week, the Vatican distributes more tickets than there are seats. The bearer of a ticket might therefore find himself standing if he does not arrive sufficiently in advance. Guards begin allowing ticket-holding persons to enter the Square from around 8:30 a.m., by which time the queue is already very long. A person wishing to secure a “front-row seat” should arrive at one of the two public entrances to the Square around 7:00 a.m., at the latest, in order to be well-positioned within the queue. Once within the Square, persons wishing to sit should briskly make their way to the seated sections.

Seating is provided for everyone attending General Audiences held at Hall Paul VI. Once the Hall’s seating capacity has been achieved, further admission is suspended. Hall Paul VI is situated to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica—if a gentleman is facing the Basilica—behind the colonnade ).

Arriving one to two hours in advance is advised. Vatican departmental contact information, ticket information, the Vatican calendar, dress codes, etc., are available on the Vatican’s website: www.vatican.va

When the Audience is held outdoors, guests are advised to keep hydrated (Bottled water is allowed through the security check-point); wear protective clothing and sunscreen; and wear hats. (Use of umbrellas is discouraged as they obstruct view: General Audiences are usually attended my thousands of people closely packed onto St. Peter’s Square. For that reason, even in rainy weather, use of a hooded raincoat, rather than am umbrella, is more considerate to others in attendance).

(See “Papal Blessings” above for information on dress code and security clearance).

Protocol for General Audience

Today, the pope enters St. Peter’s Square in a bullet-proof, glass-paneled, armored vehicle that can accommodate him standing fully erect so that his audience can more clearly see him as the vehicle makes its way through the Square. The emergence of the pope onto the Square is met with enthusiastic applause. Seated persons stand; standing persons remain standing. Many people—but not gentlemen—stand on their seats in order to get a better view of the Holy Father, obstructing other people’s view in the process. Everyone in attendance remains standing until the pope makes his way to the throne and sits.

During the course of an Audience, the pope speaks in several languages, almost always beginning with Italian. At the conclusion of each speech in the various languages, people applaud and exclaim, “Viva il Papa!”

At the conclusion of the Audience, before departing, the pope raises his hand to give the blessing. Men wearing hats should remove their hats during the blessing. All persons bow their heads as the blessing is being bestowed upon them. Catholics make the sign of the cross and genuflect. Persons carrying items they wish to be blessed should hold those items (such as crucifixes, medals, Bibles) in their hands during the blessing.

At the conclusion of the Audience, the pope will oftentimes do a walkabout to greet persons in nearby seating areas. If approached by the pope, a person may, directly to the pope, express gratitude for the Audience. “Thank you, Holy Father, for the Audience,” is appropriate. If, thereafter, the pope engages the person, he should respond courteously and briefly, knowing that the pope will attempt to personally greet as many people as possible within the time available. The objective should be to make the exchange short, sweet, and meaningful. Usually, when the pope stops to speak to a particular person, His Holiness will extend his hand for a shake, or may even embrace and kiss the person. Who embraces whom is generally a matter of body language. A pope engaged in a walkabout expects to embrace and be embraced. A person to whom the pope extends his hand may opt to shake then kiss the pope’s hand. People oftentimes present small gifts to the pope, which he always accepts. Once the pope acknowledges his gratitude, the gift is handed over to one of the pope’s attendants so that the pope’s hands are free to greet other people.

During the pope’s holiday period, from August to early September, Audiences are sometimes held at Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s holiday residence, situated approximately one hour outside Rome. Public transportation is available to the immediate vicinity of the site. [Metro line A to Anagnina Station; then Cotral bus to Castel Gandolfo.]

Special Audience

Special Audiences are for groups and usually take place on Saturdays in the morning.  Requests for Special Audiences are typically made by the bishop of the city from which the group or organization originates, but the request may be made directly to the Prefect of the Pontifical Household. Ladies are allowed to wear conservative garments of any color. Shoulders and cleavage must be covered. Sleeveless garments are not allowed; they must have short or, preferably, long sleeves. Hemlines must extend to beyond the knee, even when sitting. Jewelry should be minimal—wedding jewelry, a simple wristwatch, and perhaps pearls. Facial makeup should be minimal. Transparent or neutral nail polish is recommended; red and other bold colors are inappropriate. Gloves should not be worn inside Vatican City. If a hat is worn, it should be understated, not festive or overly decorated. A veil is preferred. A gentlemen should wear a dark suit and tie. The same dress code applies to children. Infants should be dressed in white, christening-style garments. Military uniforms are permissible. For persons from non-Western cultures, traditional garments may be worn.

Private Audience

A Private Audience with the pope usually comprises of 12 or fewer persons and is generally reserved for prominent people: royalty and high-ranking nobility, heads of state, ambassadors and their families, and accomplished persons of high business or social esteem.

Protocol

-Papal assistants will provide a briefing on where to sit, stand, etc., prior to the pope’s arrival. When the pope enters the room designated for the Private Audience, his guests will already be standing. The pope will invite his guests to be seated.

-Ladies are to wear conservative black dresses, preferably with long sleeves and collars. Hem length of skirts and dresses must be long enough to cover knees when sitting. A lady should cover her head with black veil or mantilla. Jewelry and makeup must be minimal. Gloves should not be worn inside Vatican city. Fragrances should be understated. Nail polish, if any, should be neutral or transparent. Stilettos should not be worn; shoes should be of modest height and closed, such as pumps. (Tall, strappy sandals, for example, would be inappropriate). In essence, a lady should dress as if in mourning for someone in her immediate family. Gentlemen should wear formal morning dress when the Audience is to take place in the morning and early afternoon hours (White tie dress is also appropriate though, generally, white tie is not worn before six o’clock in the evening). For late afternoon Private Audiences, white tie dress should be worn by gentlemen (See chapter, “The Essentials of a Gentleman’s Wardrobe”). When the Private Audience will occur outdoor or partially outdoor, a gentleman is expected to don his tophat. The men’s dress gloves that accessorize formal morning dress and white tie dress are not worn within Vatican City. Guests from non-Western cultures are allowed to wear national/traditional equivalent. Military equivalent is also allowed.

[ Il Privilegio del Bianco/Privilège du Blanc

Catholic queens, queen consorts, and princesses are afforded the privilege of wearing garments in the color white, instead of black, to a Private Audience with the pope or to Masses at the beginning of a pope’s reign. The privilege, “privilège du blanc,” or “il privilegio del bianco” in Italian, is bestowed at the discretion of the pope, a royal lady’s good standing with the church being of critical importance in the determination to extend of the courtesy. ]

-A Vatican assistant announces the name of each person to be presented. Catholics genuflect or bow upon the announcement of their names. Non-Catholics bow.

-The pope will greet each guest individually, saying something to each person. Catholics accept the pope’s right hand and kiss his ring. Non-Catholics shake his hand.

-The pope presents each person with a gift. If a guest is a head of state, there is an official exchange of gifts.

Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica

Each year, on special church holidays such as Christmas and Easter, the Holy Father will preside over Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. On such occasions, thousands of people crowd into the Basilica and St. Peter’s Square. Admission is conducted in a manner consistent with General Audiences. (See above). Within the Basilica, special seating for members of the Vatican’s diplomatic corp, high church officials, titled individuals, and world social and business leaders is erected close to the altar. While the dress code for such masses is consistent with that of the General Audience, a gentleman attending a Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica, one of Christianity’s and the Roman Catholic Church’s most sacred sites, should dress accordingly: a jacket and tie or the cultural or military equivalent thereof.

Non-Audience Visits to Vatican City

Whenever visiting Vatican City, whether to view some of the Western World’s greatest works of art in the various Vatican museums or to see the city’s exquisite architecture and places of worship, a gentleman should conduct himself with dignity and dress conservatively. The most liberal dress code is that established for General Audiences. A gentleman, however, should dress, at minimum, as if going to Mass whenever visiting Vatican City.

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