Sunday, April 8, 2012

Standing On Ceremony

I was so excited I felt like I was about to turn inside out. Mrs. Chatterbox and I were about to see the Pope, not that the Pope was the main attraction that Easter Morning in 1976, not for me anyway: I was there to see Saint Peter’s Basilica—in particular Michelangelo’s breathtaking dome. As a kid I’d read The Agony and the Ecstasy four times and now I was about to see this marvel with my very own eyes.

Visiting the Basilica on Easter Sunday was a questionable decision because this holiday attracted more worshipers than usual. The Italians had gone through countless governments since WWII and had little faith in their elected leaders, but the papacy was an institution they enthusiastically embraced, even when the throne of St. Peter was occupied by a lackluster pope like Paul VI.

The place was a hive of activity. Tractors moved protective wooden sheds over holy water fonts so people wouldn’t climb into them, trample each other and drown (which has actually happened). Truckloads of folding chairs were being set up to accommodate the faithful. I recall thinking that folding chairs seemed incongruous in such a lavish setting. Since there were too many bodies pressing around us to see much, Mrs. C. and I claimed two seats, sat down and waited for Easter Mass to begin.

An hour later all the seats were taken. Waves of thunderous applause rode air thick with incense as the Pope was escorted into the beating heart of the Vatican. The last time I’d witnessed an entrance this spectacular was when I saw Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones perform at the LA Forum—where a different variety of smoke filled the air.

The Pope was dressed from head to toe in white lace trimmed with gold, and he was being carried on a crimson sedan chair on the shoulders of six Fred Astaire look-a-likes in black tuxedos. Unfortunately, he was too far away for me to see him clearly as his processional paraded through the massive building. I heard a rustling behind me and I turned around to see a man in his sixties standing on the folding chair behind me for a better look; he was holding up an old women who I assumed was his mother. When I saw that everyone in our section of the Basilica had also leapt onto their chairs I thought: When in Rome… Mrs. C. and I climbed onto our chairs as well.

I still couldn’t see the Pope very well, but it no longer mattered because I’d tilted my head back to study Michelangelo’s breathtaking dome overhead. Light was streaming through the glass lantern at the top, sending down shimmering rays of light in an effect landscape artists call Fingers of God. I was mesmerized, transfixed by a powerful and spiritual reverence. I wanted to share the moment with Mrs. C. but when I lowered my head I didn’t see her. Instead, I saw the Pope, with remarkable clarity.

He’d just entered our section. I’d been so focused on the dome I hadn’t noticed that people around me had stepped down from their chairs and were kneeling on the marble floor. But not everyone.

The Pope’s pontifical hat looked like a bejeweled beehive on his frail head, and his fingers were adorned with large rings as he blessed the crowd with the sign of the cross, a gesture that looked like he was shooing away flies in slow motion. His eyes locked onto mine and his hand froze in front of him in the middle of a blessing.

Mrs. C. was tugging at my pant leg, urging me to jump down from the chair and assume a proper kneeling position. Had she tugged any harder my pants would have dropped and revealed my tightie whities, which at this stage of our European odyssey were less than white. But my legs wouldn’t work; I was as immobile as the colossal statues of saints and martyrs glaring down from their niches.

I have no idea what Pope Paul VI thought of the chubby tourist with a deer-in-the-headlights expression on his face. But as I stood on that chair, alone in a sea of kneeling worshipers, I saw what I believed to be a hint of a smile on his careworn face. He completed a blessing, one I like to think was directed at me, before being conveyed to another section of the Basilica.

Hours later I still couldn’t get my encounter with the Pope out of my mind. As we walked back to our pensione Mrs. C. said, “That was really something, wasn’t it? What did you think of Michelangelo’s dome?”

By then I’d completely forgotten about the dome.

Have a memorable Easter


  1. when we were in Rome, the Pope was "out", and they had giant TV monitors so you could see his face. Ahhh, technology...kinda ruined the whole thing..."ok, that was cool..let's go see the Colliseum, guys.." Happy Easter, Stephen.

  2. I have had friends that have visited Rome, and indeed, have seen the Pope. I would love to see Rome, but don't know if I ever will. Have to visit through pictures, perhaps. And gee, I wonder if the smoke at the Rolling Stones concert was similar to the smoke at the Tom Petty concert I last attended? ;)


  3. What an Easter blessing!! Lucky you! We visited Rome long long ago before kids so did the hostels, Eurail, time we will plan our trip so we see the Pope.
    I have a son named John Paul.
    Happy Easter!

  4. That is very cool.

  5. What an incredible experience! Happy Easter to you and Mrs. C. :)


  6. Ah. Smoke. Concerts. Those were the days, my friend. Cool to see the Pope. He probably had a good laugh with the cardinals about the crazy tourist who stood frozen on the chair.


  7. A very impressive story, Stephen.
    Have a wonderful Easter Sunday.


  8. I hope you have a great Easter :)
    I always enjoy reading your posts :)
    They are so sweet :).

  9. Now that is an Easter story that should be told to your grandchildren, your great grandchildren and on, and on. What a lovely event to be there at the right time on a beautiful Easter morning and lock eyes with a Pope AND see Michelangelo's dome. WOW!

  10. Thank you for sharing this. I thoroughly enjoyed this story! What an experience. Happy Easter!

  11. Ha! I love the fact that you were frozen STANDING on your chair.

    That was sweet.

    Good story!

  12. Hmm, hmm, maybe he thought you had something like Tourette's syndrome, except a version where you don't speak, just DO weird things ...
    Hope your Easter is wonderful!

  13. He himself may have stood in awe of the dome, and for a moment recognized that look in your eyes.

  14. Giving him the opportunity to flex his divine forgiveness muscles.

  15. Great story, and i'll bet he was amused.

  16. Now that was a papal blessing never to be forgotten! What a great story~

  17. Mrs. C can't take you anywhere. Bwahahahahahaha.

    Have a terrific day and a very happy Easter. :)

  18. Happy Easter to you and Mrs. C! Great story about locking eyes with the Pope. I've never been to Italy or seen the Pope, but the current Pope (Pope Benedikt) is from the same county in Germany as I am. I suspect that's as close as I'll ever get to the Pope.

  19. You had me laughing out loud at 4.33 in the morning!

  20. i envy you your trip to the vatican and rome. it sounds wonderful. we saw il papa once. he came to adelaide when my daughter was quite young and we watched him drive past in his little pope mobile. i always wanted a pope mobile. a fran mobile. hope you enjoyed your break.

  21. I believe I would have been awed into a stupor myself! I would love to see the dome.

  22. I loved your business and you did make me laugh. I've had a couple of conversations like that. My mind is not in the same place as the callers. It took me a little while to figure out what the conversation was actually about. Let's just say, I stopped being nice and hung the phone up myself. You talk about feeling like an idiot, I did. I don't even have the excuse of being woke up out of a sound sleep.

  23. I love this story. Your experience was much cooler and more memorable that that of the average tourist! And you brightened the Pope's day too, I'm sure.