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