In 2001, I attended a service at the Vatican hosted by Pope John Paul II. (Every Tuesday he was at the Vatican, he conducted a service open to a general audience.) The thing I remember most is just how feeble the man was, how much effort every word and step took, and because of that effort how much more each one inspired the crowd. Despite the pain, the Pope didn’t quit. He never did.
He was shot and didn’t quit. Instead he visited his attempted assassin in prison. In 2001, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and suffered from severe osteoarthritis. He didn’t quit. He “poped” for another four years.
This is what puzzles me about Pope Benedict saying that his strength “has deteriorated…to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
A Pope hasn’t retired in 600 years. There’s more to this story than the Catholic Church is telling the public.
Somewhere Dan Brown is writing a future bestseller involving the Pope’s Butler stealing documents and the Pope resigning less than a year later.
In honor of the Pope hanging up his mitre, I dusted off this piece I wrote in 2005 about seeing Pope John Paull II in person.
PJ Paul and the Blessin’ Bishops
St. Peter and St. Paul, along with their fellow saints, watched over us from their perch upon the arms of the Vatican reaching out towards Rome, making the act of stashing a weapon seem even more profane.
“I have to hide my knife; they’ll find it.” He motioned towards the line forming in front of the metal detector. Through these particular gates there was only one destination – Vatican City, and entrance was allowed or denied by the five guards standing by their side.
Matt was from Australia and not the brightest fellow in the world. He wanted to be a model or clothing designer, which is fine if you like the balding, small pointy featured inbred look. It was hard to take his love for fashion serious, as he gestured wildly his hands turned blue from coming into contact with his bargain blue jeans.
We were already late because Matt took an hour to pretty himself up. He was an acquaintance I could not shake no matter how hard I tried. We were sharing budget accommodations in Rome and our twin beds where no more than a foot apart. If I got up to go to the bathroom he would ask me where I was going and if he could come along.
“I’ve got an idea.” After stuffing the Swiss Army knife down the front of his pants he looked at me for approval. “They’ll think it is my zipper when they wand me; I’m home free.”
“First off, you aren’t going to need the knife in there.” I motioned towards Vatican City. I proceeded to lecture him on the fallibility of his plan and the intricate nature of his lack of intelligence.
“You’re right. Wait here while I stash it in the toilet.”
Fifteen minutes later Matt came out of the restroom with a smile of accomplishment on his face. The weapon was hid.
The line turned underneath the wall of saints, went up two steps, and headed toward the security station.
The security screeners were dressed in drab business clothes, which set off the clown-like outfits of the Swiss guards next to them. The Swiss Guard has offered their services to the Catholic Church as security for the pope since 1505. Their pants, striped in yellow and red, flare at the thighs before ending just at the knee. Beneath their neck a white frilly color stuck out. At their side they held a halberd, a staff with a long axe-like blade at the end. Their clothing would provide camouflage only in a circus, and an extravagant one at that, and no doubt the bagginess and bulkiness of their garb would inhibit any sudden movement; it was more than apparent that the Swiss haven’t been battle tested.
The line ended in a building where upon entering the crowd dispersed searching for a seat in the auditorium. Cameras were readied and a buzz began to arise.
Everyone stood as music came across the speakers. The doors at the back of the room were thrown open and the procession began.
The crowd erupted and surged towards the aisle as the question mark of a man was wheeled in on his gold chariot by his entourage. It was a mini “Pope mobile” and he waved to the crowd occasionally reaching out to bless someone.
Once on stage, the cart stopped thirty feet from the Pope’s chair. He made the walk with an aide at each side stabilizing him. He lined himself up in front of the chair and with great faith let gravity firmly set him down.
The entrance was greeted like that of a rock star’s, PJ Paul and the Blessin’ Bishops, but I felt bad for the feeble leader. Instead of a cart he should be sent down a zip line that ends straight in the chair. The entrance would not only keep him from having to walk at all, but it would be such a grand spectacle worthy of a man of his station.
“Viva La Papa!” The man’s cry was picked up by the horde and began to resonate throughout the room.
He made the sign of the cross and then with a breath of exhaustion took to his task. He read blessings in four different languages and then recognized each one of the groups in attendance. In a weak voice he would announce their presence and bless them. Some would shout and holler, others came more prepared and broke out into a song; one group stroked their violins upon recognition.
The Pope’s head was firmly affixed to his chest most of the time while reading off the names. Often the singing and cheering interrupted him. Occasionally he would look up, his powerful eyes staring out from his feeble body, and he would shake his fist in praise.
A rock concert or soccer game I could not decide, but the atmosphere surrounding this sickly man was electrifying. For a man in his shape to have the will to sit up out of his bed was near miraculous.
Matt was a series of flashes from his camera, signs of the cross, and “Viva La Papa’s” throughout the papal audience. Some were brought to tears, others to ecstasy when he stood up on his own after three tries and was helped off the stage. As for myself, I felt sorry for the old man.
The crowd, newly blessed, shuffled out of the auditorium to explore the wonders of the Vatican. I went with Matt to recover his knife. It was ten in the morning and we had already held an audience with the most revered man in the city. The day and Rome stretched out before us.