1. Get tickets for the pope’s weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
The best way to get an up-close-and-personal glimpse of Pope Francis is to obtain tickets to his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square. Every Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., the pope will ride through the square in his popemobile and then preside over a 60- to 90-minute service in multiple languages. The best way to get a ticket for this service is to put in a formal request through the Prefecture of the Papal Household via fax or snail mail. You can pick up your tickets from a Swiss Guard the day before the audience at the Bronze Doors. The Swiss Guards often have extra tickets for small groups, so if you forget to make a reservation, you should ask them if there are any tickets left.
Americans have a few more options when it comes to obtaining tickets. The U.S. Bishops’ Office for United States Visitors to the Vatican will happily provide tickets to general audiences, and you can reserve tickets by emailing their office. You can also reserve tickets through the Church of Santa Susanna using an online form.
2. Do your shopping before you go.
At the end of the general audience, Pope Francis will impart an Apostolic Blessing on the pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square. This blessing extends to each person’s loved ones and any religious articles that they’ve brought to the audience. As cool as it is to bring home a rosary, crucifix or prayer card from the Holy See, it’s even cooler to bring home one that’s been blessed by the pope.
3. Dress appropriately.
A strict dress code is enforced for general audiences, and those who don’t follow the rules will be denied entrance into the square at the security checkpoint. Shoulders and knees must be completely covered (no shorts or sleeveless tops, even for children). Women’s skirts or dresses must fall below the knees.
4. Arrive at St. Peter’s Square early.
Each week, the Vatican gives out more tickets than there are seats. It’s not unusual for there to be as many as 100,000 people in St. Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets. Guards begin letting ticketed people into the square between 8:00 and 8:30 — so plan on being in line by 6:30, 7:00 at the latest if you’re serious about getting a close spot for the general audience.
If you have more than one person in your group, it might be worth sending someone to the entrance on the other side of the square to check out which line is shorter. (There are only two entrances to get into the general audience, due to security checkpoints.)
5. Head for the seated areas.
Pilgrims are admitted to St. Peter’s Square two hours before the pope makes his entrance, and the audience itself normally lasts at least 90 minutes. You don’t want to be standing for that entire time.
6. Be prepared to hustle.
Once you clear security, get ready to book it for the best possible seats. Don’t be afraid to run — you’ll see priests, nuns, seminarians, and monks racing toward the front sections, and you should be prepared to join them (don’t be a jerk about it, obviously, but do hustle). Have an idea of the layout of the square in mind, and know where you want to go. If you’re part of a group, divide and conquer by having one person reserve seats and sending someone else out to scout and see if better ones are available. The seats fill quickly, even if you’re one of the first thousand people inside the square.
7. Make sure you can see the Jumbotron screens.
It’s very unlikely that you’ll get seats close enough to see the pope well during the general audience, so you want to make sure that you’ve got a good view of the giant screens in St. Peter’s Square.
8. Be prepared for any and all weather.
The pope will sometimes move the general audience to the Hall of Pope Paul VI (located to the left of St. Peter’s Basilica) if the weather’s bad or it’s particularly cold outside, but Pope Francis hasn’t chosen to do this very often. This is a good thing — the hall seats only 6,300 people, so many pilgrims don’t get a chance to see the pope if he chooses this location. What does this mean? Check the weather the day before the audience, and be prepared for whatever is scheduled. Bring umbrellas or ponchos if rain is expected, and bring sunblock and hats if the weather’s supposed to be nice. You’ll often have to wait 60–90 minutes from the moment you take your seats to the moment the pope appears.
9. Bring a baby.
OK, this is obviously a joke. Don’t steal babies. That being said, if you do have a baby, get to the square super early and make a point to get as close to the barricade as you can. The pope’s ushers keep an eye out for children, and the popemobile makes many stops during the pope’s entrance so that the Holy Father can bless the small children in the square. Your best chance of getting some face time with the pope is to have a little one.
10. Keep your eye on the popemobile.
Don’t be afraid to stand on your seats to spot the pope when you first hear the cheers that signal his arrival (everybody else will be standing on their seats as well, although you should definitely sit down once the audience begins). It can be a little hard to see Pope Francis in the popemobile, so keep an eye out for the white vehicle and use the Jumbotron screens to help you track him as he makes his way through the tens of thousands of people.
If you can, try to get a papal selfie.
11. Check the pope’s calendar and see if he’ll be attending any other celebrations during your time in Rome.
Sometimes Pope Francis will hold special services or celebrate Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, and tickets for these events will be made available to the public. Even if you can’t obtain tickets in advance from the Prefecture of the Pontifical Household or the Swiss Guards, you can often grab a spot for the service by lining up in St. Peter’s Square on the day of the service.
12. Attend the pope’s Angelus address and blessing on Sunday afternoon.
This is the easiest, if not the closest, way to get a glimpse of the pope and receive the Apostolic Blessing during a trip to Rome. Every Sunday at 12:00 p.m. when Pope Francis is in residence, he appears at the window of the papal apartments to lead the crowds gathered below in prayer and discuss the day’s Gospel reading. Sometimes he will give away items — such as rosaries or books of the Gospel — that relate to the day’s topic. Get to St. Peter’s Square early if you want a spot near the front, but it’s not as important to arrive here early as it is for a general audience.