Last year I was able to attend the canonization of Pope Paul VI, Óscar Romero, and others. I had a great time, and it was a memory worth sharing. This year was completely different as I attended the canonization of John Henry Newman and four others.

Canonizations are no joke. If you’ve ever been to Rome for a papal audience, you have just a small understanding of the struggle—yes, the struggle—that it takes to endure this multi-hour experience. Don’t get me wrong: I had such a wonderful time on both occasions, but as a father of four, I think it’s worth saying that I often bite off a lot more than I can chew. And with that, I’d like to share with you the differences and lessons learned between the two canonizations.

In 2018 with the canonization of Pope Paul VI, this was actually my first time going to the Vatican for a papal event other than the Angelus. The morning started at an early at 5 a.m. when we woke all of our kids up to get them dressed (and mostly fed) and to head down the street past the Musei Vaticani into the Porta Sant’anna in order to wait in line. By that time, it was probably 5:30 a.m. or later — and oh yeah, I forgot to tell you that I forgot my tickets in our AirBNB and had to run there and hustle back to the line.

Sweating, I was excited since there were hundreds of people already in line. Getting in the queue at that point meant we got no breakfast and really had to stand among a Donnington-sized crown to enter St. Peter’s Square. The best seats, by the time we got in, were right around the obelisk.

This year we arrived even earlier because I wanted to get a better spot. The obelisk was a solid choice: it was a great landmark to run convoys of kids to and from the bathroom (of course, there’s only one for everybody share). But sitting closer certainly served as an objective in our minds, just as it’s important to us to be closer each Sunday at our regular parish. It benefits both the kids and the adults. So, this year, we got up earlier and were prepared to get in line at 4:30 a.m., at the same place near the Porta Sant’Anna. As we walked hurriedly down Borgo Pio, I started wondering to myself as to where the noises of the busy crowd where. Perhaps the buildings around that area are so tall, and the streets were narrow enough to where the sounds were muffled or blocked. But as we got closer, it was apparent the perhaps the line was a little shorter than we anticipated. We turned the corner by the McDonald’s, and as we saw the Bernini columns, we looked, and there was almost no crowd, whatsoever. There was a small group that was obviously together since they have matching hats and shirts, and maybe a few other individuals who also understood the importance of arriving early. But otherwise, it was a ghost town.

We had so much time that we were able to walk around St. Peter’s Square several times and take in the rare silence and moonlight. And the minute I thought, “hey, we better not leave this location, or we will lose our spot” we came back to only a few more people in line. It was almost hilarious because then, McDonald’s opened, and that means serious business is about to happen. Please don’t judge, but I am the father of four young children, and I am an American, and there is something special to be said about familiar foods when you live overseas.

Around this time, which was probably 7 a.m., people really started to show up and really started to press in on my family. People around us were nice and allowed my boys to rest on the ground, but as soon we the boys got up, wow, the crowd was almost merciless.

We got really lucky this year, by the way. The gate at the Bernini columns was the only gate the guards open for entry to the security checkpoints. Because of this prime location, we were literally the first ten people in line. Now, we would’ve been ten people in the gates, but this crowd started pressing on us in a way I can really only describe if I were to tell you that a mountain of lava was about to swallow us. It felt that desperate. Nuns and pilgrims all nationalities and all sorts squashed us and held arguments with the guards until the gates opened. Thankfully, there was one guard that allowed my wife and kids to wait between the gate and security machines. And when the gates opened, it was like a viral Black Friday video.

As I said, it was quite a different experience than in 2018. Back then, in the middle of a line of thousands of people, we slowly, but safely, tiptoed our way to the gates and security machines, after which there was a mass of confusion as to which we should enter. Eventually, we got through to the crowd of people looking for seats, saving seats, and waving down their friends that were further back in line than them. But we felt like sitting at the obelisk was the best for our family and probably the most hassle-free as well. I think we judged right.

This year, though, we were certainly within the first 20 people into the square, which meant we had a plethora of options, and our first choice was to get front and center, as close to the altar as possible. Also, because of the way we remember Communion is distributed, it was important to get near the center aisle. We probably could’ve sat in the very front row, but the center row meant a lot to us, and so we got in the third row all the way against the center wall which provided a wonderfully centered view on St. Peters Basilica, the altar, and the entire event going on around us.

The canonization Mass in 2018 was really cool. It was interesting to see that, no matter how many people were in front of us, certainly more than 10,000 to 15,000 people, the Mass was going to continue like any other. What I mean is, Mass was still Mass—it wasn’t a spectacle. Of course, that far back, people were talking, moving, and enjoying themselves—either watching the Mass on the big-screen televisions or keeping up with the Mass over the loudspeakers.

But when you’re sitting in the third row, as I was this year, your eyes are fixed on every movement. And it was something to behold. Seeing the procession of the Supreme Pontiff, seeing the cantor beautifully chant the psalm, and gawking, literally, as the Gospel was sung in Hindi (for the presence of thousands of Indian pilgrims in support of the new St. Mariam Thresia Chiramel). Speaking of which, I met this saint’s great-grandson, sitting in the row right in front of me and in the featured picture to this post. The wait was well worth the morning struggle and I’ll cherish the experience for the rest of my life.

What are the lessons learned?

1. All canonizations are not equal. A woman in line with us at zero dark thirty has been to every canonization in the last decade and she said, “Sometimes you arrive and only the homeless are here. Other times, the entire Church is here.”

2. All canonizations are special. Even if we didn’t sit up close for 2018, we had a wonderful time meeting people from all over the world and not worrying about people squashing us to see the pope after the Mass. It was pretty intense for about 30 minutes concluding the benediction.