Thursday, October 28, 2004

Italian adventures Part Two

Published October 28, 2004

We were invited to attend the private Mass of the Holy Father in his private residence. I recalled the various times in history that saints, sinners and famous people made this same pilgrimage. MoMaher and I talked the night before about what we would wear. Luckily, cousin Simona’s wedding gave us the necessary formal clothing we would need to be received by the pontiff. We both decided that we would veil our heads in the tradition of the church and in honor of St. Paul’s admonition to do so in the sacred places where God dwelt. I noticed that when President and Mrs. Bush recently were received by John Paul II, Laura Bush had followed protocol, even though she is not Catholic. We would do no less.

Saturday morning MoMaher and I woke extra early. The nun at the Vatican had said that we were to report to the “big bronze doors by 7:30 AM”. We knew where the doors were because we had been all around Saint Peter’s during the week and these large doors are hard to miss. They grace the left side of the Vatican as you face the front of Saint Peter’s Basilica. During the day one will notice two or more of the Swiss Guard in front of these huge doors which serve as the primary entrance between the pilgrims and the pontiff’s residence.
That morning we hardly spoke to each other…I know my mind was racing. We didn’t eat much for breakfast as we had to observe a one hour fast before receiving Holy Communion from the Pope. Receiving Holy Communion from the Pope? I kept thinking how did we find ourselves in this position? Why did we get the call when so many have not? These are questions that I know I’ll ask myself for the rest of my life. The solemnity of the day was monumental for us. We entered our cab and told of our destination as the big bronze doors of the Vatican (no address was needed) and off he sped through the winding streets of Rome.
We walked hurriedly up the stairs and approached the famous big bronze doors. A couple others were headed in the same direction so I figured they, too, were going to be present for the private Mass. We gave our names to the Swiss guard whose long spear crossed our entrance. He was expecting us. We still couldn’t believe it. I don’t think any of us who gathered in the wooden foyer for our escort could find a deep breath inside of us. We all looked at each other. There were 28 people. No one spoke. We all sat and folded our hands in our laps, not knowing what would happen next.
We heard footsteps and then the papal secretary arrived and told us in English to follow him. We ascended several marble stair cases. The beauty inside the stairwells astounded me. Saints Paul and Peter towered above us in resplendent color.
We cooperated with our tight schedule by following our escort as fast as we could; with Swiss guard dutifully watching our every move to be sure we moved along with the pace of the group. We crossed a cobblestone courtyard that dates back to the Middle Ages and then entered a building I never noticed from ground level before. We entered a series to two elevators and then walked across the top of the Sistine Chapel in a hallway running parallel to the roofline of the chapel. We were told that the path we were taking was the walkway the Cardinals take when coming into Conclave. I felt immersed in history and eternity. We entered another series of rooms which went deeper into the papal residence. At one point we were asked to leave all our personal belongings behind. I clutched my prayer books and the 3-page letter I wrote to John Paul II the night before. I was determined to give it to him. I also carried into this Mass the intentions of everyone I knew. The Lord was going to hear from me today in this Mass like He never heard from me before. I figured I was dialed in pretty tight with the successor of Peter officiating.
Several priests were taken into the adjoining room to be vested for Mass as they would be assisting the Holy Father. Suddenly, like clockwork, the secretary summoned each of us to walk down an even narrower hallway, taking us two by two, like the animals into Noah’s Ark. MoMaher and I were last. We were escorted inside individually. The chapel has a roof made entirely of stained glass, with statues of the four evangelists cornered around the chapel. The tabernacle was front and center. The stained glass roof gloriously depicted the victory of Christ’s Ascension into heaven. My eyes stayed up while my escort seated me down. I don’t think I had taken in any oxygen since the first staircase ascent. I had to tell myself to breathe.
I was sitting in the second row next to a couple nuns and seminarians, wondering when the pope would make his appearance when all of a sudden, I looked forward and noticed he was simply two feet away from me, kneeling down in prayer. I could have reached over and tapped him on the shoulder. My eyes filled with tears immediately. When all were seated, we rose for the opening hymn and the pontiff was vested by the priests in front of us while saying his vesting prayers which priests say when they dress for Mass. He faced east toward the tabernacle, Jerusalem and Calvary and offered the most beautiful private Mass I’ve ever seen. The canon was in Latin, the official language of the Church.
When the final prayers at the foot of the altar were said, we all stayed kneeling for our thanksgiving prayers. Individually we were escorted out of the chapel and into the big room which had vesting closets, a large conference table and a big chair which obviously was used by the pope. We were lined up in a receiving line. I thought we were going to be escorted back out of the building when another group arrived and lined up next to us. Suddenly, the door creaked back open and making his way toward his chair was the Holy Father with his cane. We now all knew that we were going to be individually received. MoMaher bit her lip and I clutched my letter. I watched as those before me went up, kneeled to receive his blessing and form another line on the other side of him. When it was our turn, I walked up and my mind went completely blank. I stammered my thanks to him and as I handed him my letter he gave me a rosary. He made the sign of the cross on my forehead while imparting his apostolic blessing, and I in turn, held his hand in both of mine and kissed it respectfully, leaving plenty of lipstick on his knuckles. His eyes were peaceful and lovely on a face ravaged by Parkinson’s disease and a slight palsy. This Godly man could see right through me and I was thankful and honored to be in his presence. As I watched MoMaher receive her papal blessing and rosary, tears filled my eyes again. Before he stood up to go back into his residence, we all bid him farewell with respectful applause.
I hardly remember how we found ourselves outside the big bronze doors again. I remember calling home to JD, the kids and my parents trying to describe what happened to us through the international telephone line and sobs. We laughed because every time we both talked about our experience, we both would start crying. We arrived back in Milano for our final days in Italy with the family. We shared our story and I could tell they were happy for their American cousins. I came home a different person after my adventures in Italy with MoMaher and the pope. My faith renewed, I knew I would be a better person for having met him.

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