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”