I clutched a book covered in Nigerian goatskin and waited for them to bring me up to present it to John Paul II. Time was running out and they had not called my name.
This was back in 2000 when Catholics for a Free Choice was running a campaign to kick the Vatican out of the United Nations. Their online campaign had gathered 700 groups that wanted the Vatican out. So we decided to respond.
We wrote a short document endorsing the Holy See’s presence at the U.N. Within six months, 4,207 groups from all over the world had signed it including the largest Protestant and Muslim groups in the world. As a result, the campaign against the Vatican sputtered and died.
We decided right away to present this document and all the groups’ names to the Holy Father. The Papal Nuncio to the U.N. – Archbishop Renato Martino – made the request. We would present our book to the Holy Father during his regular Wednesday audience in St. Peter’s Square.
But that’s when things started breaking bad.
Instructions from the Vatican said to present myself to the Swiss Guards at the Bronze Doors next to St. Peter’s Square. They would have our tickets. Up the broad steps I fairly leapt. The Swiss Guard reached into his pocket and gave me some yellow tickets. It happened so fast. He didn’t even ask to see my letter. The Swiss are usually reliable. But something was wrong.
“I am making a presentation to the Holy Father. Are these the tickets for that?”
“Oh, yes, these are the right tickets.”
I turned and walked slowly down the steps, paused, looked at my tickets, which seemed quite ordinary, climbed slowly back up the steps, tapped on my letter from the papal household.
“I am making a presentation to the pope. Are these the right tickets for that?”
“Yes, these are the tickets.”
I slunk away. I didn’t feel any better when I saw others with yellow tickets walking around the square.
Later that night the nun at my residence asked me if I had tickets to the audience. “Oh, yes, right here” and showed her my yellow tickets. “Use these. They’re better,” she said and handed me some orange tickets. Oh, no.
We thought it might work out when the next day our orange tickets got us right up close to the pope. I clutched my goatskin book and waited for my name to be called.
This is what you need . . .
Time passed. No one called my name. The audience was ending. People were going forward and meeting him. In a panic, I called Monsignor David Malloy, an American who worked in the papal household and our main contact on this adventure.
“Ask one of the guards to approach the priest standing right next to the pope.”
Astonishingly the guard did just that. The priest standing right John Paul II’s shoulder looked at me, saw no one he knew, shook his head no and the guard returned.
Malloy said, “Hand your phone to the guard.” The guard refused to take it. “But, it is the papal household!” He refused even to look at me. I waved the phone. I shouted. Nothing. The audience ended.
Monsignor Malloy said to come to his office and he would get the goatskin book to the pope: “These tickets were waiting for you at the bronze door.” On the front of the red tickets: “Prima Fila.” Front row!
Three years later, my new bride and I went to Rome on our honeymoon. Everyone said Cathy should bring a white dress – it doesn’t need to be your wedding dress – present yourself at the Wednesday audience, and you will get blessed by the pope.
The night before, we had dinner with a bunch of people including then Monsignor Charles Brown, an American who is now papal nuncio to Ireland but then worked for Ratzinger at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
“You absolutely need tickets for that,” said Monsignor Brown. “You cannot simply walk up in a white dress.”
He made a call and got us tickets. No problem. This time, an American was in charge.
Next day, we got into a long line of newlyweds and were led up high and higher to the place near where the pope would be sitting. But before we got to the very front of the line, the guard shunted us off to the side.
I asked what the problem was and the guard and I went back and forth, me demanding to know why we were sitting with the rejects and him dissembling. He finally made it clear that the problem was with my wife.
“What’s wrong with my wife?”
“Nothing is wrong with your wife, Meester. She is beeuteeful! It’s her dress.”
Here his hands got going, palms up, shoulders in full hunch.
“Her dress, Meester. It-is-not-MATRIMONIAL!”
He was discrete enough not to point out that it wasn’t really white and was also maybe a bit tight but how could that matter anyway, this being Italy after all. We actually left St. Peter’s Square looking for something more matrimonial. We failed and did not meet the pope.
Just a few weeks ago my organization sponsored a Vatican conference in celebration of the anniversary of Evangelium Vitae. We organized it and underwrote the costs, but I was not able to attend. And that Sunday, don’t you know, I saw picture after gushing picture on Facebook of friends and colleagues from the conference greeting the pope after his Mass in St. Peter’s Square.
Maybe it’s just me. But I think not. Don’t let anyone tell you different. It can be really hard to meet the pope.