We arrived in Rome exactly one year ago today. On that day, I had a incredible encounter which helped change my view of so many things. I regret that it ever had to happen, but I am so grateful that it did. Here is what happened on my first day there.
After I finished my last entry into this travel log, I was able to sleep for about another hour. Since the girls who sat behind me apparently don't need sleep, I decided to read one of the two books I brought with me. I decided on Pope John Paul II's "Gift and Mystery". Although I have read it before, I thought it would be something good to meditate on sort of as a primer for the trip. It was even better this time.
Our plane landed at Leonardo DaVinci airport at 8 am. Once in the terminal, it was terrifying. We had no idea where we were going and those CD's that claimed to be able to teach me Italian in 7 days weren't helping me. We decided to follow a priest who had been on our place since he looked like he knew exactly where he was going. I hope that he was going to baggage claim and not to a connecting flight.
Luckily he was going to baggage claim and once we got our bags we met our driver so he could take us to our hotel. Our driver took us on a terrifying ride to our hotel. He didn't follow any traffic laws. He drove on the sidewalk, in the wrong lane into oncoming traffic, he darted between cars and Vespas, and turned two lane streets into three lanes. I was convinced I would die in that car and I prayed to at least live long enough to see St. Peter's.
Because there had been a traffic accident on the highway, our driver took us to our hotel through a back way. All the streets were quite dirty and decrepit. It was obvious that these were the slums of Rome. Between my prayers I told my husband, "If this is what Rome looks like, don't expect to leave the hotel much".
However, once we reached the Via della Conciliazione the scenery became much more pleasant. We were also surprised by two familiar faces, Archbishop Sean O'Malley and his secretary, Fr. Brian Bachand. They were out shopping and enjoying the beautiful day.
I wept when I saw St. Peter's Basilica. There was something about seeing it in person that was so powerfully overwhelming. It immediately felt like home.
Rezidenza Paolo VI from inside St. Peter's Square
Our driver dropped us off at our hotel, Rezidenza Paolo VI, which is across the street from the Apostolic Palace, St. Peter's and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (Holy Office). The building, which is located in the Extraterritorial Zone of Vatican City, used to be an Augustininan monastery and is it obvious by the size of the rooms. They are incredibly small, but I am not planning on spending much time in the room. Our room overlooks the courtyard of what is the current Augustinian monastery. Just down the hall, there is an awesome terrace with overlooks St. Peter's square. The view from there is amazing, but unfortunately, the outer portion is restricted.
As soon as we checked in, the desk clerk gave us two tickets for the Papal Audience. We took the tickets and headed up to our rooms to quickly freshen up and head across the street. We had less than 30 minutes.
I am embarrassed to say this, but I really didn't care much about the audience. At least, that is what I was telling myself. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to see Pope John Paul II. I had been offered an opportunity to go to WYD in Denver, but my parents didn't let me go. I was devastated. Here I was in Rome with tickets to see the Pope and it was the wrong Pope. Here is my confession. When Pope Benedict was elected, I cried and it wasn't out of joy. It was out of certainty that he was going to destroy the Church I love so deeply. I remember screaming, "NO! Anyone but him!" My opinion softened a bit after I decided to take his books which had been collecting dust in my library and actually read them. As I studied them, I realized that he wasn't who people made him out to be, but I still had my reservations about him. That is one of the things that made be decide to write a term paper about him.
I rationalized that going to the audience would be a good way to stay awake. I was right. The audience energized me. There were more people than I had ever seen in my life and they were all singing, chanting, cheering. It was incredible to see.
Although we arrived only minutes before the audience began, we were able to get a place right against the barricade. I don't know how it happened, but I am sure there was a very good reason.
Pope Benedict came in the square in his white Popemobile. He immediately came down the aisle where I was standing. He shook a few hands and kissed a few babies then he came closer to where I was. I raised my enormous camera to take a picture and he immediately looked right at me and smiled. I don't know if he did or not, but it was like he posed. Right after I took the picture the Popemobile stopped. I was too busy looking at the Pope to find out why. The woman to my left extended her hand and he clasped it. Then he reached out to me. I couldn't move. I just looked at him in shock.
I kept thinking, "Here he is. Right in front of me. The Successor to St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ is right in front of me and I am wearing the blue fleece sweatsuit I wore on the plane". It was then that I realized that, no, he wasn't John Paul, but he was my Pope and I was going to love him anyway. He smiled at me and shook the hand of the seminarian to my right.
After the audience we returned to the room to shower in our tiny shower. It is literally the smallest shower I have ever seen. There is barely room to turn around and I have to remove the shower head from the holder to use it. Even still, after all those hours, just taking a shower felt so good.
We headed back out at 2 to find the bronze doors. The guards made us stand in the line for the Basilica. There were thousands of people in the line and hundreds more, particularly those with tour guides cutting the line. In true Roman fashion, we able to shorten our wait time. After we got cleared through security we had to wait in a much shorter line. I was 4th in line.
It was an incredible feeling to enter the Apostolic Palace. The Swiss guard directed me to a small room on the right where a man checked my name off the list and gave me two white envelopes with my consistory tickets. Before I left, I asked the guard if I could take pictures of the staircase and he let me.
Since we had already been cleared by security, we decided to see the Basilica. What a beautiful church. The first thing we saw was the Pieta. It was so sad to see it behind glass. Even though it was so far away, it was still a thousand times more beautiful in person than in pictures.
We were also able to see the body of Pope Innocent XI as well as Blessed Pope John XXIII and Pope St. Pius X. Since Pope Pius X founded the Diocese of Fall River, it was special to see him and pray before his body.
I was surprised at how small the basilica is. Perhaps it just looks small because everything is so proportional, but I expected the distance from the door to the altar to be much longer.
Afterwards, we did some shopping and went to dinner at 7 at La Vittoria. The food was delicious. I had beef scaloppini limone and my husband had scaloppini marsala. We also had tortellini soup and bruschetta. We finished it up with tiramisu and cappuchinno. Yum! The waiter brought us limoncello afterwards. That was one strong drink, but it was so delicious.
As we were leaving the restaurant, Archbishop Sean was coming in with a Franciscan priest and Fr. Bachand. He looked so happy and relaxed. The most relaxed and happiest I have seen him in quite some time. We were able to talk with him for a few minutes before we headed back to our hotel and bed.
Right now it is almost 3 am here at 9 pm at home. We got to bed at 8:30. It is so strange to realized that it is 3 am here and only 9 pm at home. By the time people at home wake up, our day here is half over. I also find myself desiring to sit on the balcony, even at 3 am and just look at the Basilica.
Photos by Domini Sumus