Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Visit with Benedict

In the cavernous Paul VI Papal Audience Hall, we watched thousands of Catholics gone wild. There was shouting and singing, dancing and cheering, there were masks and costumes, coordinating hats and T-shirts -- and all before 11 o’clock in the morning. Our visit to Rome would not have been complete without attendance at a general audience with Pope Benedict XVI and so we joined him and 5,000 of his closest friends for an intimate get-together on a Wednesday morning.

The audience hall straddles the southern boundary between Rome and Vatican City just behind the colonnade to the left of St Peter’s Basilica. At full capacity, it holds 6,300 visitors in little wooden chairs bolted to its gently sloping floor but since it is the middle of February, definitely off-season in Rome, the immense hall was only about 80% full. We arrived well ahead of the Pope’s regularly scheduled 10:30 mid-week morning appearance and had plenty of time for quality people watching. There were hundreds of religious in the auditorium: priests in notched collars cheered like sports fans when they saw themselves on the Vatican JumboTron; nuns in navy, brown, gray, black, royal blue and white garb acted like teenagers awaiting the latest teen heartthrob; a large French youth group led by an enthusiastic young priest standing on one of the chairs repeatedly sang the equivalent of a fight song for le pape; dozens of adorable school children in matching yellow caps, most of them licking lollipops and missing their front teeth, chattered away in Italian behind us in anticipation; and, international journalists and long-lensed cameras filled the skyboxes that lined both sides of the great hall. The colorful Swiss guards stood watch in every corner and we were surprised to see them salute and not bow whenever a cardinal in a red zucchetto skullcap passed by. The anticipation of the Pontiff’s arrival was palpable and mounted to a collective restlessness as the appointed start time came and went. The crowd were like guests at a wedding waiting on tiptoes for the bride to appear as all eyes moved to the back of the hall as the expectation that the Pope would soon be coming down the wide center aisle continued to swell. I had attended a Papal audience with Pope Paul VI as a backpacker in 1977 and described to Joe many times how the Bishop of Rome had been carried in on an ornate crimson and gold tasseled throne and down through the mass of in awe spectators to the stage. We, and it appeared that most of the others in the auditorium with their necks craned to the rear, assumed that Pope Benedict would be making a similar entry. Everything is late in Rome, and so it seemed was the Papal Audience as the hour moved five, ten and then fifteen minutes past 10:30. The crowd was indeed getting fidgety and the noise level increased to a new high. I couldn’t help thinking that any minute the lights would go down, the music come up and the Pope would arrive in a blaze of NBA spotlighted glory as the Rock Star cometh. Certainly the audience of the faithful would have been happy with such a grand and celebrated entrance. Finally, at ten minutes to eleven, the lights actually brightened and from the left side of the stage Benedict XVI, in heavy cream vestments, zucchetto cap and ruby slippers, slowly walked, shuffled almost, to the center of the stage and into his Papal seat. The crowd went crazy and the program began.

First up were some opening remarks from the Bavarian Pope in Italian, French, English, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Polish – he read some versions himself and others were read by his multilingual staff; it was just like a visit to the United Nations in New York. Next up was a reading from Mark 15, again read in seven languages and then came the part of the program with a bit of the circus to it: the introduction of the many groups in attendance from countries around the world. Groups were announced by nation and each that had registered its presence had a moment in the sun; some simply waved, others hooted and hollered and yet others provided an emotional musical tribute to the Pope. The group from Verona was decked out in full Renaissance regalia – elaborate long-beaked bird masks, capes, ruffled, blousy shirts, tightly laced bodices and bejeweled crowns in anticipation of celebrating Carnivale later in the month. There was an entourage of Naples policemen all clad in their blue uniforms with shiny gold buttons and the sole group from the US hailed from Santa Barbara and sang a ballad to the Pope in Spanish. Between announcements of the various contingents, spontaneous chants of “¡Viva el Papa!” and “Vive le pape” erupted across the hall. The Pope acknowledged and waved back at each and every group of admirers. It was quite an interesting gathering, much more like a pep rally than a solemn assembly and I couldn’t help comparing it to a commencement ceremony with friends and families cheering, ringing bells and blowing horns as the name of each graduate is read aloud. As Maslow has taught us so well, we all have a need for affiliation – a sense of belonging to and fitting in with a group and the professor’s theory was in ample evidence as we observed the shared excitement of those traveling together to see il papa at the Vatican. Affiliation on steroids was alive and well and singing for the world to hear in the massive Papal Hall. The audience closed with a benediction for all in attendance and the program ended just over an hour after it had begun.

Our Papal blessing in place, it’s finally time to venture out from under what has become the comfort and familiarity of Rome to brave the wilds of the bottom half of the Italian peninsula – to experience the uniquely charming culture of il Mezzogiorno. Arrivederci, Roma -- it’s time to pack our bags, take the train to Naples and prepare for some southern adventure.

Pictures of our adventures:

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