'Morning amidst the saints'

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webmaster | 10/28/97
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"Today my thoughts
Are swift and cool
As goldfish in
A lily pool.

Tomorrow, like as not,
They'll be
Brown turtles blinking
Hard at me.

And I shall be
As dull as they
And blink back, too.
But oh, today!"
— Sister M. Philip, "Today"

OSTIA, Italy — I woke up several times, during my first night in Italy far from my hometown of Madera, convinced that morning had come. The glow-in-the-dark numbers of my mother’s wind-up clock, however, disagreed with my skewed sense of time. My body eventually won the argument and I arose over an hour before the scheduled 6:30 wake-up call.

Since Hotel Sirenetta stood opposite the Tyrrhenian Sea, I stepped into the rain-sodden, lingering night to pray the rosary and walk along the seashore. According to our guide Sylvia Puppio, Ostia had been the most important port of the Roman empire until the capitol moved east to Constantinople. Now the pounding surf seemed to bring only litter to the rocky beach, and most of the shoreline had been claimed by summer resorts and restaurants.

After a light breakfast of pastry at 7 a.m., the 11 pilgrims crawled by bus through Rome's rush hour traffic amidst compacts, motorcycles and other buses. Beside the narrow roads, Italian competed with English for linguistic dominance of the small billboards and ads, some of which were a voyeur's dream. Gas pumps sat on the sidewalk offering drive-by fill-ups.

We aimed to breach the Vatican an hour early for a 9:30 a.m. Wednesday audience with Pope John Paul II. On the way, Sylvia earnestly explained that to join the Pope’s Swiss Guard you should be a "beautiful" and "good-looking" bachelor who spoke English, German, Italian and Spanish. Alas, I sat two languages shy of the qualifications ... among other things.

"I think you came from some old Roman land —
Most alien, but most Catholic you are ..."
— Padraic Colum, "Fuchsia Hedges in Connacht"

In St. Peter's Square, 140 stone saints atop the Roman colonnade had me surrounded, not to mention thousands of fellow pilgrims from around the globe. Tickets for the weekly papal audience were free, and courteous Swiss Guard and Vatican police directed the crowd, which in time filled the massive square.

On this site in A.D. 67 the apostle St. Peter (Kephas in Aramaic) had been crucified upside down as part of the Emperor Nero's "Circo Vaticano" (Vatican Arena) spectacles. His mangled remains were buried nearby, and in A.D. 326 the Christian Emperor Constantine began work on a memorial church over his tomb, which in the 16th and 17th century became St. Peter's Basilica.

After my return, a cousin joked that Jesus' words in Matthew 16:18 not only were true spiritually, but literally as well — upon Peter a church had been built. At the time, I preferred to marvel the sweet irony of how Jesus and all the martyrs had bested the Roman Empire even in the "defeat" of death.

As the pope's open white car passed right before me before the audience, I looked up at the tired, swollen eyes of a shepherd whose life seems to foreshadow a martyr's death as well. I had seen the pope in Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1984, and time had since worked him over like a back alley mugger. But his presence remained powerful, and the light in his eyes hadn’t dulled, despite his recent travels to Brazil.

In a numbing diversity of tongues the visiting groups were announced, scripture read (Matthew 19:1-6), and the pope spoke upon the importance of an intact and loving marriage and family. Occasionally exuberant pilgrims would spontaneously break into song, cheer or chant, and the pope bore this with patience and a smile, like an indulgent grandfather.

I struggled to be patient myself as I tried to figure out what language was being spoken now, and awaited words in English. But through it all I felt a great peace and a gentle joy.

The open air audience ended with a parting blessing around 11:30 a.m., and with reluctance I rejoined Sylvia and my fellow California pilgrims for the more mundane matter of lunch.

"The storm — the blast — the tempest shock,
Have beat upon these walls in vain;
She stands — a daughter of the rock —
The changeless God’s eternal fane."
— Robert Stephen Hawker, "Morwennæ Statio"

 

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