October 14, 2008

Meeting Pope Benedict

In January of this year, I made yet another journey to Rome, this time with my mother - a few days away post Christmas mayhem to relax and soak up once again the beauty and timelessness of this great European city.

Only there for four days, we didn't really plan on doing very much. Having done the tourist thing on numerous occasions in the past, this trip was really more about just spending time together and savouring Rome. Little did I know I would have the privilege of meeting on the world's religious leaders, and even (dare I say it?) celebrities?

While I find myself becoming increasingly spiritual, I would like to be able to say that religion has more of a place in my life right now, but the whole concept confuses me at the best of times, and I find myself adrift from the Catholic Church in which I was firmly raised. The world we live in is a collosal paradox in the sense that the vast majority of our generation so readily rejects religion and all its seeming restrictions and contradictions, yet it is so often religion that divides people and tears our world apart.

On the plane from Dublin to Rome, my mother mentioned that she had heard from someone that it was possible to participate in a papal audience on Wednesday mornings in the Vatican. Having been married there, she and my Dad have always had a wish to do this again, and so I put up no argument. Religious or otherwise, this would still be quite a cool experience I thought. The day before, I went along to the American College to request invitations for both of us. "You're lucky", the nun I met said to me "Tomorrow's audience is ONLY 4,000 people, so there is still some availability".

Next morning, we were up early to get down to the Vatican and queue with everyone else. The hopefuls included bevvies of nuns from all over the worlds, newly married couples, groups of school children, sick people, tourists..you name it. It was a long wait. The atmosphere there was actually really great. I mean, I was expecting it to be very devout and prayerful, but the people queuing were as expectant as a bunch of young people waiting to attend a rock concert. Even the most firmly rooted atheist couldn't help but appreciate the general vibe in the air that morning.
Due to some special circumstances, my Mum and I were ushered in front of this crowd to the front row of the auditorium that morning where we had full view of eveything taking place. Little did we know what was about to come!

Just before the ceremony started, a member of the Pope's security team approached the front row and explained to all seated there that we would have a special opporuntity to go up on stage and meet the Pope in person. "Oh my God", I thought. "One look at me and he's going to know what a heathen I am!" :D Also, I suddenly wished I'd dressed better!

Sure enough, at the end of the main ceremony, the guards came down and guided us up the side of the auditorium and onto stage in front of..yes...4,000 envious people! One by one we filed in front of Pope Benedict. Moments of significance like these in life always seem to pass in something of a blur, and this was exactly the same. Suddenly, I was before him. We had a moment. My lasting memory is that of his eyes - he had exceptionally kind eyes - something that does not come across in his public media appearances. I bent to kiss his ring. He gave me his blessing. And just as quickly as I found myself up there, I found myself on my back off stage again.

And that was it. As I said before, a rare privilege. Even the non-Catholics of this world would cherish such a chance.

Next on my list is his Holiness the Dali Lama. :-D

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