Wednesday, July 16, 2008

On the Papal Olympics

Erin and I had the opportunity to attend a Wednesday audience with Pope Benedict XVI in Rome this past month. There is a special section for newlyweds during the audience. Erin and I were granted tickets to this special section for the Audience of June 18, 2008. If we were one of the first four couples to be seated at the audience, we would be introduced personally to the Holy Father and have the chance to shake his hand. This is our story.

Day 1 - Monday

Erin and I arrived in Rome on Monday afternoon, having flown out of Boston Sunday evening at about 6PM. It was hot. Our first order of business was getting Erin's dress and my tuxedo pressed so that they would be ready for the audience on Wednesday. Oh, yeah, that's an important point - if you want to meet the Holy Father you have to wear your "nuptial attire".

So once we got into the hotel we asked the guy at the front desk where to find a dry cleaners. He didn't speak very good English. Italy doesn't speak very good English. People who tell you that everyone in Europe speaks enough English to get by, they're wrong. We pantomimed someone ironing a shirt and he seemed to get it. He marked up a tourist map with a couple of locations and we were off.

The streets in Rome are windy, narrow, and paved with cobblestones. They were perfect for navigating with a large suitcase full of clothing. We went up and down the street the hotel guy had indicated three times; no laundromat. We went into a few more stores and repeated our pantomime performance. Oh, yeah, they knew where we could find what we were looking for. And, by the way, it's called a "tintoria" in Italian. Why that is, we never found out.

More searching, no tintoria. It turned out to be on a one-way street that we had already walked up and down twice. It was kind of like a half-storefront, with the simple sign "Tintoria" over the door. Guess what, they didn't speak English.

Actually, they spoke enough English to tell us that it would be 120 euro to iron our clothes for the next day. That's 180 USD - good business to be in. We tried to bargain, but I think they knew they had us by the blankety-blanks. We reluctantly agreed. How much is it worth to look good for the Pope?

Day 2 - Tuesday

We didn't have too much Audience-related work to do on Tuesday. We actually got to do a bit of sightseeing on this day. We went to the Tintoria extorsionists in the AM to pick up our clothes. In the afternoon we went to the North American College to pick up our tickets. The North American College is where American seminarians live while they are studying in Rome. They were helpful folks.

At the N.A. College we got the inside track on what we'd need to do to be one of the lucky couples that would be greeted by the Pope. "Be one of the first three or four couples," the nun coordinating the visits told us. "You'll have to be there about an hour before the gates open at 8:30." She also told us to bring water and sunblock, as the Roman sun could be very hot.

We got to bed early that night. Our goal was to get there for 7AM, meaning a wakeup call of 5:00 to get to St. Peter's Square on time.

Day 3 - Wednesday

We awoke at 5:00 and quickly showered and donned our nuptial attire. We were at the collonade outside of St. Peter's by 7:15. We hustled across the square (we had requested to be dropped off on the left collonade; we were dropped off by the right) and made it to the line. There were three couples in front of us - a good position, hopefully good enough for the front row.

We queued up behind the already forming line. We talked to some of the other couples in line, some of whom were eyeing our position enviously. Soon, other groups were arriving. One was a group of Philipino nuns who were absolutely adorable. They wanted to take pictures with us in our wedding clothes. A giant group of Central American women in native dress were also arriving. They were scary. They had their faces painted, and one particularly large woman with tatooed arms looked very much like Vincent Wilfork, the nosetackle for the New England Patriots.

A curious thing began to happen. We began to notice that people who had definitely arrived after us began to appear in front of us in line. We were witnessing the phenomenon of Italian queuing. Vincent Wilfork was suddenly directly in front of us in line, when he had arrived about an hour after us.

This technically wasn't a problem. We weren't competing with Vincent for seats, as there were special seats for the "sposi novelli", as we were called. But we also began to see other couples quietly edging their way through the crowd. It was on.

I told Erin to be ready to book it as soon as the gates were open. I had the luggage. She hiked up her (ample) skirts and made ready to bolt. "Don't be afraid to play the helpless bride," I advised.

The gates opened. The crush wasn't that bad, but bad enough considering who we were going to see. Erin and I made it through in reasonable time and headed for the Sposi Novelli section. We were still fourth. The front row of the section had eight total seats - enough for four couples. We looked good. But at the last minute an Italian-speaking bodyguard ushered us to the second row with no explanation, or at least none that we could understand. We sat down in the second row deflated, but still hopeful that we would be able to greet the Pope.

We still had about two hours before the audience actually began. We got to know some of the couples around us. One couple was from the Southwest. He was Texan, she was Mexican. They met online. Another couple was from Tennessee and were moving to Arlington, MA - small world.

It was hot. I mean Mediteranean hot. Yes, we brought sunscreen and water. But that wasn't enough. If not for the kindness of the couple from Texas/Mexico, who loaned us an umbrella, we would not have made it through the audience while maintaining consciousness. I drank about two and a half liters of water during the course of the audience and sweated it all back out - mmmm.

The audience went on for about an hour and a half. In the heat, it seemed longer. The Pope gave a talk in Italian and then greeted Italian pilgrims. Then French. Then English. Then German. I hoped he was done here. Then Spanish. Then Portuguese. Oh, my goodness. Then Polish.

I hate to say it, but I was in danger of losing my enthusiasm for the papal audience. It might have flashed through my mind once or twice that I might have rather been somewhere else just then, maybe in a swimming pool or deep freezer.

And all this time, Erin and I were not sure that we would actually get to greet the Pope. We had been very much hoping that we would meet the Pope, and that we would have a picture to memorialize the occasion. Since we were in the second row, it was possible that we would be able to worm our way to the front to shake his hand. But it was anything but certain.

So as the Pope was wrapping up his Polish greeting, security guards began to move through our seating area. They didn't speak English (like everyone else in Italy), and we weren't sure at first what they were doing. Then they pointed at us, and pointed to the third row and it was clear. It was the universal language of "you don't get to meet the Pope". Oh, well. But wait. A second security guard in a different uniform approached, looking at the first guy and speaking the international language of "you don't know what the hell you're doing, you idiot". He started speaking in Italian, because he was from Italy. It wasn't clear at first, but we quickly realized he was asking "who was second?".

We were second! That is, next in line. But hold on, three or four other couples were also claiming that they, too, were second. Some of them were claiming this very loudly and some of them were obviously not second, at all. In fact, I had noticed one of them elbowing their way into empty seats towards the front after being seated in the seventh or eighth row. Again, prospects seemed bleak. But a third security guard appeared, whose cause I have submitted for canonization. He spoke the international language of "Shut up you poseurs, Tony and Erin were second", and he pointed at us. Our victory was at hand.

We floated to a position at the end of the first row. The heat seemed to blow away on a cool breeze as we waited for the man in white to move down the line towards us.

It took a while. He was spending a lot of time with each person he greeted. Soon, though, he was only one person away. Then he was shaking my hand. I had thought of a few simple things to say, which I managed to blurt out in a confused manner. "We're so happy to be here, Holy Father. We're from Worcester, Massachusetts." He replied "Ah, Worcester". Someone told me later that "Ah, Albequerque" is the standard response in greeting lines. But at the time, I was convinced that Worcester would now have a special place in the Pope's heart. Erin was after me, and then that was it. The Pope moved on to the next line of pilgrims.

We were shuffled out of our section. I felt like a reporter could come up to me and say, "Now that you've made it to Rome and met the Pope, what are you going to do now?" To which I would say "I'm going to Disney World!" while pumping my fists. It was a huge rush. I'm not sure you're supposed to, but I felt victorious.

Of course, that wasn't all. I felt fortunate. I felt very fortunate, to have touched and seen the living symbol of unity for Catholics all over the world. I had met the Holy Father, my advocate and guide. And I had defeated all of those other losers who were trying to beat me to him.

For Erin and I, the day would continue to be a bit of an obstacle course. We went to DHL, Fed Ex, and the Italian Post Office trying to mail back her dress and my tux. We had to go back to the Vatican to get the photos of her and I shaking the Holy Father's hand. Then we had to catch a train to our next destination.

But after meeting Benedict XVI, everything was worth it. The trial of the Roman Sun, the Roman streets, and the Roman audience all seemed small in the light of what we had been given. We will carry that moment in our hearts and on our wall.

Hopefully some day Erin and I will meet the Holy Father in Heaven. And, hopefully, he'll look at me with recognition and say, "Hey, Worcester!".

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