By John Rieping | Published 23 September 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
MADERA, Calif. -- Her joy couldn’t be ignored.
“I feel very excited, very excited, for him to come to the United States,” said 57-year-old Margarita Pérez. “Yes. I’ve been watching on TV lately. … You know how he makes detours? I wish he could make a detour to over here. Since there’s a connection with Philadelphia and over here, California … It’s a possibility, right?”
That would be a long detour, someone noted.
“That’s okay. He’s the pope,” she said, and laughed.
The first visit of Pope Francis to the U.S. is evoking delight and hope in some Maderans — and polite indifference from others.
“Its irrelevant to me … I could take it or leave it,” said 45-year-old Alonzo Lopez.
“I think it’s alright,” said 28-year-old Frank Manzanarez. “Like he’s visiting the U.S. ‘cause he’s always up in Europe, yeah, and wants to (know) what’s going on in the United States.”
Showing far more enthusiasm, Pérez’s son thinks the bishop of Rome brings a renewed focus on the basics of Christianity.
“I feel that it gives people a sense of optimism as well as hope,” said Gustavo Pérez, 23. “And that it’s sort of like a new revival maybe … I feel Pope Francis does a lot to bridge that gap (between Catholics and the church) to actually proclaim what is in the gospel to Catholics all around the world.”
For Pérez, the visit’s highlight will be the pope’s address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C., on Thursday morning.
“Many communities are impoverished,” he said, “and its because certain policies that Congress enacts that affect these communities. … With the pope having … the guts to be outspoken about that, I feel its very empowering for people and hopefully people will embrace that and become inspired by that …
“The media … depicts the pope as being progressive and all this and that. But that’s what the church was always about. It was always about doing the right thing.”
The most important part of the papal trip for his mother, Margarita Pérez, is a different congress entirely — the week-long World Meeting of Families Congress in Philadelphia.
“It’s not like how it was when I was growing up … It’s sad that there’s too many divorces, because, for me, marriage is a commitment,” she said. “You know it’s a covenant. Three (God and two spouses) in one (marriage), you know? And you have to have strength. You have to have Him first in your life to make it work.”
While Pérez tunes in via radio on 1250 AM, Sandra Rabadan, 25, is turning to the YouTube website for the latest on the pontiff.
“I’m excited for the community, for the families that get to go, and I’m just excited that he picked (the) USA, especially right now with these crises that are going on,” she said. “I see it as … a sign of God, … that He’s telling us to just be calm and He has everything under control.”
Rabadan said the nation’s legalization of same-sex marriage has shaken up the faith of those her age who are discerning their vocations in life.
“I know that a lot of people my age, we have questions about the faith … But you know we have to be firm in what the church teaches us,” she said.
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Rev. John Warburton, OSJ, pastor of St. Joachim Catholic Church, feels Pope Francis displays what the pontiff wrote about in his first apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” Warburton told a story of a longtime friend of the pope who visited after his election.
“So he eventually puts this question to his friend (the pope), ‘Jorge, what has happened to you? … You used to be so serious’,” said Warburton.
The pope allegedly replied, “The Holy Spirit.”
Warburton said Pope Francis doesn’t fall into a trap set by mainstream media that tempts Christians to skip evangelization to talk first about morality.
“His priority is evangelization. Bringing Jesus to people,” Warburton said. “Morality is important and has its place. But this pope has the strongest sense of any of the recent popes that evangelization — proclaiming the fundamental message that Jesus has saved you — is first … And (then) morality follows conversion …
“And he cares about the poor, the weak (and) the needy. He will defend them. But it’ll be the joy of the gospel and the good news of Jesus present and saving us (that is) first and foremost in all ways. And then, anything that is talked about on the serious issues of morality, they’re going to be connected and they’re going to be in that context.”
By John Rieping | Published 14 Feb. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Contrary to my usual sloth, I drove to a cinema on the last weekend of January. Lest anyone yawns, realize I last did so for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012. My own trek involved no dwarves or dragons, but it did have more drama than expected.
As is my tendency, I failed to notice the steady march of the clock until only just enough time remained to reach the matinee of “Gimme Shelter.” I rushed out of my apartment, accidentally selected the wrong destination on my GPS navigator’s touch screen, and impatiently chose a new one.
My sub-compact car sped down State Route 99 and I arrived minutes before showtime — at the Police Science Institute in Fresno, California. Apparently my hasty fingers had erred twice.
“Better late than not at all,” I thought.
I redirected my GPS device and followed its advice across Fresno’s surprisingly busy afternoon streets. At the multiplex, lines of people extended like fingers from the box office, which had lost connection to its computer network. After a wait, I bought my ticket and hurried through a nearby open door, which a security guard soon informed me was the wrong one. Out I went, then back in.
I sprinted to the darkened cave where “Gimme Shelter” lit a wall in front of invisible tiers of seats. I groped up stairs and down a row of feet I stepped on to finally slouch into a seat. My self-contentment at my patience and determination to support an exceptional film would quickly be broken by two women on my left.
“Another door closes,” one of them said repeatedly in a loud sing-song tone.
A glance revealed both were adults, one older than I, and the “mockery” kept flowing out. No one else spoke up, so indignantly I scolded them about theater behavior. The elder nodded without upset and they left. It was only then I figured out her 20-something companion had the mind of a child. I had completely misunderstood.
I shed tears about more than the movie during the next two hours.
How often we see what we presume rather than what is present, especially when stressed. This bias extends far beyond encounters with strangers.
In the fantasy novel “The Truth,” author Terry Pratchett writes, “Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things... well, new things aren’t what they expect... because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds... Not news but olds, telling people what they think they already know is true.”
I hope such a mistake explains the unacceptable behavior Feb. 5 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
I refer not to its accusation of a conspiracy of silence about Catholic clergy misconduct and resultant harboring of abusers. This old claim ignores reality. Anyone involved in this area knows of the church’s efforts to clarify its policies and to add strong safeguards for children. I saw firsthand these sincere and extensive changes from the inside, so-to-speak, as a seminarian and a Benedictine monk (temporary vows only) as well as later as a volunteer in youth ministry.
I refer not to committee claims that the Holy See promotes violence against homosexuals or their children. The Vatican has explicitly condemned “all forms of violence against homosexual persons” (apostolic nuncio to the UN, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, 2008) on multiple occasions. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2358, teaches “they must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
No, I refer to recommendations that the Catholic Church contradict its long-standing teachings on the dignity of the human person, including those involving sexuality and abortion. Such an attack on religious liberty is outrageous.
However we Christians must never forget what our freedom is for.
“Religious liberty is a foundational right. It’s necessary for a good society,” said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2012. “But it can never be sufficient for human happiness. It’s not an end in itself. In the end, we defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ.”
Let us correct errors and stand up for our rights — but with love. If we falter as I did at the theater, let us work on a better sequel.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 15 March 2013 in The Madera Tribune
I chuckled interiorly when Daniel Barriga, a fifth grade student of St. Joachim School, confidently said Wednesday that the new Pope Francis, age 76, was a soccer player.
Shows how much I know, Daniel.
I returned home that night and learned that the San Lorenzo de Almagro soccer team had proudly tweeted an image of the former cardinal’s membership card that afternoon. The name and photo on it were unmistakably his: Bergoglio, Jorge Mario.
He became a “centennial member” in 2008 on the 100th anniversary of the soccer club, reportedly one of the five most popular teams in Argentina. It was named after a Buenos Aires priest, Rev. Lorenzo Massa, who allowed kids to play soccer in the church’s yard so they wouldn’t get hurt by trams in the street. In exchange, they would go to Sunday Mass.
Pope Francis is known to be an enthusiastic Raven, the nickname given to the team’s fans. A fellow devotee, architect Oscar Lucchini, told the Reuters news agency, “He (the pope) says he lives in a permanent state of suffering for San Lorenzo.”
That’s to be expected. San Lorenzo apparently ranks 12th in Argentina’s Primera Division. I’m sure loyal supporters of similarly… um… challenged sports teams can empathize.
Perhaps he still chanted in Spanish with other fans: “Ole ole ole / ole ole ole ola / ole ole ole, / each day I love you more! / Oh, it’s a feeling / that I carry inside. / I can’t stop! / I’ve followed you / since I was a child. /Come on, San Lorenzo, / come on let’s win!”
Whether fifth graders or popes, people can be full of surprises. Humans are like that.
By now, anyone curious about the new pontiff has probably heard he’s the first Latin American pope, the first non-European in more than 12 centuries (the most recent was Syrian), the first to adopt the name Francis, the first to belong to the learned Society of Jesus (aka the Jesuits), and the first with only one lung (he lost his other one from a respiratory infection as a teenager).
Less obvious or unusual, Francis is allegedly an introvert, which doesn’t bother this fellow inward-looking soul one bit. The gift of reflection has its advantages, even if it is less celebrated or popular than the lively energy of the extrovert.
He finds inspiration in the humble life of the deacon and friar St. Francis of Assisi (c. 1181-1226), who helped reform the medieval Catholic Church while leading like-minded voluntary beggars who served the suffering.
As archbishop, he cooked “frugal and healthy” meals for himself, according to National Public Radio, and enjoyed fruit, skinless chicken, salads, and an occasional glass of wine. Refusing a chauffeured limousine and the archbishop’s palace, he rode the public metro bus and lived in a simple apartment. He cared for AIDS patients and the seriously sick, worked against poverty and human trafficking, ministered to divorcees, and championed the babies of unwed mothers against priests who refused them baptism.
He also preached and taught the good yet challenging news of Christianity, and earned the wrath of some by opposing abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage.
In a February 2012 interview with the Italian daily newspaper La Stampa (“The Press”), he spoke of the “new evangelization” (a term coined by Pope John Paul II) in Latin America:
“We need to come out of ourselves and head for the periphery. We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a church becomes like this, it grows sick. It is true that going out onto the street implies the risk of accidents happening, as they would to any ordinary man or woman. But if the church stays wrapped up in itself, it will age. And if I had to choose between a wounded church that goes out onto the streets and a sick withdrawn church, I would definitely choose the first one.”
Asked then about a Vatican document leak scandal, he pointed out the timing of a gathering of cardinals at the start of Lent:
“It is an invitation to look at the church, holy and sinful as it is, to look at certain shortcomings and sins, without losing sight of the holiness of so many men and women who work in the church today. I must not be scandalized by the fact that the church is my mother… And when I think of her, I remember the good and beautiful things she has achieved, more than her weaknesses and defects.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 14 March 2013 in The Madera Tribune
When the bells of St. Joachim Catholic Church echoed across central Madera, California, well before noon Wednesday, some didn't know what to think. But others knew well the reason.
"The bells just kept ringing, ringing," said Mary Ann Hutcherson, manager of St. Marello Bookstore, "and I see (religious education coordinator) Diana (Saenz) and the ones from this office coming out..." She pointed, imitated an expression of confusion and continued with laughter, "Going, ‘What's going on?' And Zak's (Security One) even drove by like, ‘Why are the bells ringing at 11:30?'... The bells were the other giveaway that we had a pope, because they ring the bells (as if) we were in Rome."
For many Maderans, the first "giveaway" that a new Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis of Argentina, had been elected came from much newer technology than bells.
"My husband (John) came out at lunch, turned on CNN and just at that moment the white smoke was going up. He hollers, ‘There's a pope!' So I go flying to the television set where I am riveted until the pope comes out and just sat in tears, absolutely in tears," said Ellen Bryan, a volunteer at the bookstore. "It sort of gave me faith again in the church."
Her eyes grew wet as she explained. "I thought, ‘We cannot keep going this way.' I mean the image of the church in the world is so bad... among Catholics and non-Catholics... When he came out and he took the name Francis for St. Francis (of Assisi) the reformer, who was called by God to reform the church."
She said she was touched by the lifestyle of the man formerly known as Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, who lived in an apartment, cooked his own meals and frequently rode the bus to work instead of living in the archbishop's residence. He not only publicly preached social justice, but also routinely visited the slums surrounding Buenos Aires.
"The words of (St.) Francis are ‘evangelize always, use words if you have to,' and I thought you know we need that. It doesn't matter what you say. It's what you do that people will watch and learn from. So I just sat there with tears. I found myself praying along (with the new pope)... and just crying."
Her husband, for understandable reasons, felt a different emotion as he waited to find out who the next pope would be.
"He was mad... He kept going, ‘Get this show on the road,' because his lunch hour was almost over... It was funny," she said.
He barely caught a glimpse of the new pope before leaving for work. Yet not all Maderans had to choose between work and papal discovery. As Tom Spencer, principal of St. Joachim School, explained, "As soon as I heard there was white smoke (rising from the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican), I announced it over the intercom and told teachers to try to tune in if they could find a way to do it so that the kids could know."
Sister Ana Rosa Gordo of the Sisters of the Immaculate Conception teaches fifth grade at the school. After she and her class finished lunch and recess they watched live video of St. Peter's Square until the new pastor of the Catholic Church emerged.
When the principal announced "the pope had been elected it was just... like an explosion of joy, like we have our leader, our father," she said. "So I was excited to see who the pope was going to be... and I was in shock at first. It wasn't one of the cardinals that was on the list of possible popes. But when I saw him walking out (on) the balcony... so calm, his humility, I loved how he asked the people to pray for him, how he prayed for his predecessor Pope Benedict XVI, and just that simplicity. It was very touching. I was very excited and thankful to God also."
Her students shared her enthusiasm. Most of them said it was the first time they'd seen a new pope being elected.
"I was so excited!" exclaimed Kai Wong when asked.
Classmate Daniel Barriga, a soccer fan, said the pope would "help us through this mission" in life and especially liked his birthplace "‘cause Barcelona plays for Argentina." Barriga expects the new pope will play soccer.
"He was nice and humble," said Autumn Pecarovich, "because of him asking for a blessing for himself" from all those watching. He bowed his head while others prayed for him.
"I think he'd be like a really great leader... even if you just believe in God and are another religion he can still lead you," Emily Stansbury said.
Not everyone outside the school shares such views however. Renee Roberts, a non-denominational Christian, commented on the election: "I don't care as long as he don't mess up." She had a vague impression the previous pope had done so but couldn't remember what he may have done.
Local Catholics encountered Wednesday naturally had a different response.
"I more or less got a lump in my throat thinking ‘we're back together.' I feel like the church is whole again. Not that it wasn't, but you've gotta have a pope," said Jim Bryan, a dental lab technician.
"When I first heard there's just an overwhelming sense of emotion that comes from knowing that now the decision's been made... I anticipated it being longer," Spencer said. "When it came quickly I found myself really confident that they must have reached that decision very prayerfully and made the decision with a real spirit of unity."
"I didn't know anything about him, but that doesn't surprise me... The ones that the media... or others promote... are not (usually) the ones the Holy Spirit has in mind," said Rev. Carlos Esquivel, pastor of St. Joachim Church and a member of the Oblates of St. Joseph. "What I hope is that he will continue some of what his predecessors have done before him, beginning with John Paul II and Benedict XVI, in continuing the Year of Faith and the new evangelization."
Rev. Sergio Perez, OSJ, celebrated a public Mass of "Thanksgiving for the Election of a New Pope" in Spanish at St. Joachim Church on Wednesday night. The school too will celebrate it in a fashion. "As news emerges," St. Joachim School will "probably have a small assembly of some kind to introduce the kids to the pope," Spencer said.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 16 February 2013 in The Madera Tribune
With uncanny timing, this week has brought together the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, the Ash Wednesday kickoff to the Lenten season, and the annual hijacking of St. Valentine’s Day. How wonderful for unmarried Catholics, who now have ample excuse to be somber and reflective!
Not that all of us require one.
Yet a common thread of a different color can be also seen, and that would be love in its many forms.
For outsiders, the bond between Catholics and the Pope isn’t quite understood I suspect. After all, no one can deny the charisma of Pope John Paul II, who some pundits foolishly trivialize as a “celebrity pope.” But Pope Benedict is more known for his intellect. So why have some Catholics felt a sense of loss, upset or even guilt over his retirement?
In truth, such a reaction isn’t necessarily unique to any particular pope and even reporters are not immune. A CNN article published Wednesday describes how an elder journalist recently responded to a question of how he felt about the death of Pope John Paul I: “He shot me a horrified look, as if I had asked how he had felt after a family tragedy. ‘How do you think I felt?’ he shot back. ‘It was absolutely heartbreaking!’”
It is not a coincidence that the root of the word “pope” lies in ancient Greek for “father.”
Theologian and professor Scott Hahn, of Franciscan University of Steubenville, noted Tuesday on the website Facebook, “It’s a hard thing to explain to outsiders, the mystery of a family bond that we Catholics all share, and how deeply we feel it. But here is a man who is a father figure to us all, and not just in a symbolic way; for we really are united by a new birth, in the flesh-and-blood of the Eucharist. And this man, we know him to be our spiritual father, in a very real and mysterious way, even more than our own natural dads.”
If mainstream western media has tended to misinterpret this moment and the Catholic reaction, the shock felt by most has been far more universal and understandable. Depending on the source consulted, only two or three popes have voluntarily resigned in the past. Others resigned under pressure and several of those died as martyrs. The most recent resignation was Pope Gregory XII, who resigned in 1415 to heal a split in the Catholic Church.
Nearly six centuries later the resignation of Pope Benedict seems to contrast starkly with his more recent predecessors who died in office.
“But there comes a time,” Hahn wrote, “when a father becomes so old and infirm, that one of the most profound gestures of love might be to hand things over to the next one in line, like we see in Scripture, when David stepped down as king, for Solomon to succeed him, shortly before he died (1 Kings 1-2).”
Naturally the attention of many is on the imminent conclave in Rome to elect the next pope, which must begin between March 15 and 20 according to church law. All of the cardinals younger than 80 will participate, a total of 117 by then. Of these, 67 were appointed by Pope Benedict, and the rest by Pope John Paul. A two-thirds majority (78) will be needed to win the vote.
Thankfully this will take place during the Christian season of Lent, when Catholics, Orthodox, Episcopalians and some Protestants prepare for Easter Sunday with renewed prayer, repentance, self-denial, and compassion for those in need. When better than such a time to seek God’s guidance for such a decision?
I hope all people of good will, whether Catholic or not, will lend their prayers to ours that the world will be richly blessed by whomever the cardinals elect as pope.
As for Pope Benedict, he reminds me of words by author Rudyard Kipling, “If you can dream -- and not make dreams your master; / If you can think -- and not make thoughts your aim; / If you can meet with triumph and disaster / And treat those two imposters just the same; / If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, / Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken / And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools… You’ll be a Man, my son!”
You may even be a pope.
Let us remember all of our “fathers,” spiritual or otherwise, in prayer this Lent.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published October 20, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
At least 2,000 Mohawk tribe members have gathered in Rome today (Oct. 20) in anticipation of the canonization of one of their own, a 17th-century Mohawk maiden named Kateri Tekakwitha. On Sunday (Oct. 21), she will be the first Native American ever canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.
Her path to world renown wasn't an easy one. Two scientifically inexplicable miracles had to be investigated and approved before the Vatican would officially recognize her as a saint. According to the Associated Press, the second miracle happened when a dying boy of Lummi tribe descent, Jake Finkbonner of Ferndale, Washington, recovered from a flesh-eating strep bacterium infection in 2011 after children across the U.S. prayed for Kateri to intercede with God for his life to be saved.
But long before then Kateri suffered greatly for her love of God as did the tribe of her mother, a band of Algonquins who had converted to Christianity. The following story comes from the research of her distant cousin Norm Léveillée, genealogy websites, and accounts of her life.
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Chief Sachem Carolus Pachiniri had led his Weskarini band of Algonquins, consisting entirely of Christians, for most of a decade. The French called his people the Little Nation, and a French fort and Jesuit mission offered protection. When marauding Iroquois attacked, Algonquin braves and French soldiers would fight back while families sheltered in the fort. But a surprise attack around 1652-1653 left many defenders dead, and women and children enslaved.
Among them would be the mother of the future saint, a woman who may have been called Pittaraskiwassi (Algonquin for “flower of the earth”) among the Weskarini. But the Iroquois renamed her Kahontake (meadow). She became the wife of the Iroquois chief of the Turtle Clan, and bore him first a daughter, in 1656, and then a son.
In 1660, the deadly virus smallpox ravaged the Iroquois village of Ossernenon (now Auriesville, New York) and Kahontake, her husband, and her son died. Her daughter survived but pockmarks scarred her face and her eyes became oversensitive to sunlight, which earned her the name Tekakwitha ― “she who gropes for her way slowly.”
Tekakwitha’s uncle became both clan chief and her guardian, and he detested Christianity because of the way French settlers treated natives, the rise of European diseases, and other bad omens. Yet Jesuit missionaries, who natives called Black Robes, would nonetheless visit the Iroquois after the clan moved across the Mohawk River to form a new village, Caughnawaga. The Turtle Clan had relocated only after French soldiers and hostile braves crushed several fortified Mohawk villages, including Ossernenon, in 1666.
Tekakwitha’s uncle never permitted her to listen to the Black Robes until 1667 when circumstances forced him to show them hospitality for three days. During that time 11-year-old Tekakwitha, an excellent cook, prepared their meals as hostess of the longhouse. The visit surely stirred thoughts of her mother’s faith, which she knew about through her mother’s friend Anastasie.
In 1674, Rev. Jacques de Lamberville, SJ, accidentally came to the chief’s longhouse for information, and 18-year-old Tekakwitha seized the opportunity to ask about the Black Robe’s God. She explained that her mother had been a Christian, and she wanted to learn more.
The encounter gave first voice to the desire that would become her lifelong quest and catchphrase: “Who will teach me what’s most pleasing to God so I may do it?”
The priest agreed to teach her, but did so in secret for fear of the chief. In time, Tekakwitha revealed her growing devotion to the Christian God to her uncle, and pressured him to allow her to become a Catholic. He eventually consented so long as she never tried to leave the village.
His dark-haired niece would be baptized on Easter Sunday, April 5, 1676, at St. Peter’s Mission near her village. She adopted a new name, Kateri, after Saint Catherine.
Her public commitment to a foreign god would not be welcomed in her village. Children mocked her with words and stones if she left the chief’s longhouse, and adults referred to her as “the Christian” or “the Algonquin.” Some beat her. Because she refused to work on Sundays, her uncle would not allow her to eat all day as punishment for her “laziness.”
Once a young brave raised his tomahawk to kill her, but when she quietly knelt, ready to die for her God, her behavior so confounded him that he left her.
In July of 1677, Kateri slipped away from Caughnawaga. For the next two months and more, she walked more than 200 miles across woods and swamps to the mission of St. Francis Xavier, near Montreal. She received her first Eucharist on Christmas that year.
For years she would spend hours daily in prayer and ministry in her new village of native Christians, Kahnawake. Though illiterate, she remembered everything she’d been told about the life of Jesus and his disciples, and frequently held others spellbound as she shared those stories.
Kateri Tekakwitha died of poor health in 1680 at age 24, and her last words were “Jesus, I love you.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 25, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
“Today my thoughts
Are swift and cool
As goldfish in
A lily pool.
Tomorrow, like as not,
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”
I woke up several times during my first night in Italy far from my hometown of Madera, California. I had never been overseas. It was autumn 1997, and jet lag had convinced me 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 more than an hour before my 6:30 wake-up call.
I stayed with 10 other pilgrims at the Hotel Sirenetta (mermaid), which fittingly stood by the Tyrrhenian Sea, part of the Mediterranean. So I stepped into the lingering rain-sodden night to pray and walk along the seashore.
The harbor city of Ostia, which means “mouth,” sits at the mouth of the Tiber River and 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 resorts and restaurants.
After a light 7 a.m. breakfast of pastry, we 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 on small billboards and ads, some of which were a voyeur's dream. Gas pumps sat on the sidewalk offering drive-by fill-ups.
We breached the Vatican an hour early for a 9:30 a.m. Wednesday audience with Pope John Paul II. On the way, our tour guide Sylvia Puppio had explained that to join the pope’s Swiss Guard one should be a “good-looking” bachelor who spoke English, German, Italian and Spanish. Alas, I sat two languages shy of the qualifications... among other things.
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 a weekly papal audience are free, and courteous Swiss Guard and police directed the crowd, which in time filled the massive square.
On this site in A.D. 67 the apostle Peter (Kephas in Aramaic) had been crucified upside down as part of the Emperor Nero's Circo Vaticano (Vatican Arena) spectacles. Peter’s remains would be buried nearby, and in 326 the Emperor Constantine began work on a memorial church over his tomb. St. Peter's Basilica would be rebuilt in the 16th and 17th century, and has the largest interior of any Christian church in the world even today. I discovered that for myself that afternoon as my mind lost all sense of perspective in the presence of giant statues, pillars, and more.
A cousin later 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 at the sweet irony of how Jesus and all the martyrs had bested the Roman Empire even in the “defeat” of death.
That morning the pope’s open white car passed me before the audience, and I looked up at the tired, swollen eyes of a shepherd I had seen 13 years prior in Vancouver, British Columbia. Time had altered his face like a back alley mugger, but the light in his eyes hadn’t dulled. His strong presence would remain undimmed until the end of his earthly pilgrimage in 2005.
In a numbing diversity of tongues, 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. 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 as I awaited words in English. But through it all I felt great peace and a gentle joy.
After a blessing around 11:30 a.m., I reluctantly rejoined Sylvia and my fellow California pilgrims for the more mundane matter of lunch. Yet I had already been well fed.
“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, “Morwennae Statio”