|When I was a Roman Catholic Seminarian, |
and the very young age of nineteen,
I was in a private audience with the then Pontiff
of the Roman Catholic Church, John Paul II
To say that I met and chatted with the leader of the Roman Catholic Church would be a stretch. But I did kiss his ring. And I got to see him in his private chapel and in his private library in the Vatican.
I attended a private audience with about forty-five other people — mostly priests and seminarians. It was the year 2000 — around Christmas time — and I was in Rome with other American seminarians. At the time I was studying to be a priest, and our group was invited to have a private audience.
We were in Rome for two weeks — but we didn't know what day our audience would happen. There are security protocols one follows when scheduled to meet the Pope. The Vatican gives a call to our group leader, a Benedictine priest named Aurelius, the night before and he then contacts us to be on the ready. We're meeting the pope!
The night I heard the message I had to scrap my plans for the following day. I was planning to visit the catacombs of Saint Callistus. Oh well, I thought, a papal visit trumps all of that. So we had to wake up early — to arrive at the Bronze doors of the Vatican Apostolic Palace at the crack of dawn. You enter the doors from the right colonnade in Saint Peter's Square. Once we were green-lit to proceed, we were inside the Apostolic Palace.
The Bronze Doors
John Paul II had a private chapel in the Palace where he celebrated an early mass. It was so quiet when we arrived one could hear a pin drop. The Pope enters the sanctuary fully vested and he celebrated the Mass in the old Latin rite style — facing the altar (and not facing the people). I think I read one of the readings for the Mass. So did my classmate Brent. Afterward, the Pope's private secretary, a fellow by the name of Stanislaus Dziwisz, escorted us to the private study of the Pope.
It was Christmas time, so in the Pope's library there was a stately Christmas tree with ornaments painted with images of John Paul. I remember all of the furniture was elegant but not overstated. It was a brightly lit room. And there was a wooden barrister bookcase with nicely appointed leather-bound books.
The Pope entered shortly after we had congregated and took a seat in a white plush chair. Everyone in our group lined up to meet him one by one, by kissing his ring, and stating our home state in the United States. When it was my term he said softly, "Oh. The Mardi Gras," because I am from Louisiana, and when another seminarian said he was from Kentucky he said, "Oh. Race horses." And it went like that — and each of us received a rosary and a holy card.
The picture I have of the event is not the best — because it's a photo I took much later of a framed copy of the photograph that my aunt has hanging in her house in Covington, Louisiana. She was always proud of my decision to go to the Seminary — and I think she still has the picture hanging in her living room.
- The door to the Apostolic Palace is really cool. A Swiss Guard stands by to protect the entrance. There is a long hallway and to the right an ornately designed spiral staircase that takes you up to the levels of the Apostolic Palace.
- I remember the Pope's chapel had an image of the Polish version of the Virgin Mary — entitled Black Madonna of Częstochowa.
- John Paul II was about eighty-years old when I visited him in the Vatican and he had already been pope for about
- The pope would die about five years later the above photograph was taken.
- When I was in Rome to visit the Pope, it was a hectic time for me. I was studying philosophy at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and I was living at the American seminary. We traveled to Rome and were visitors to the North American Seminary in Rome. I was also hosting my cousin and my mother — who were in Rome at the same time as me. I was juggling doing seminary stuff, keeping up with my studies, and playing host to my visiting family.
- We got lost in Rome several times! The streets wend this way and that.
- My favorite place in the Vatican is the necropolis of Saint Peter. Buried under Saint Peter's Basilica is an ancient Roman cemetery. It is possible to visit it but it takes a lot of planning and scheduling to get tickets. It's called "The Scavi Tour."
- When in Rome — do as the Romans do and have dinner at 9:00 in the evening and a glass of red wine with a serving of very thin pizza.