An audience with the pope

12 Feb

I’ve got conclave fever, Ted. 

It’s been wall-to-wall papal speculation in the news since Benedict XVI announced yesterday that he’ll be stepping down at the end of the month. If you’re about, I’ll be hosting an evening of drinks, Vatican gossip, and a ceremonial viewing of Angels & Demons. But I digress. 

This is a piece I wrote frighteningly long ago (for a now-defunct blog) about the time I attended a papal audience at Castel Gandolfo. Given the news, it seemed fitting to repost it – though I’ve resisted the urge to edit. Best read with this – naturally – as a soundtrack. I hope you have fun with it. 

***

Castel Gandolfo’s White Wizard

Something very special happened today. Before I can tell you about it, there’s something I should explain. I might not be a very religious person – a Jehovah’s Bystander at best – but I have a guilty secret.

I love popes.

I have a poster with every pope ever on it. I have a John Paul II snowglobe. I spend a lot of time thinking about who my favourite pope is. Should you care, it’s Leo IX. But it changes often. Popes are just that great.

It’s not a religious thing – it can probably be traced back to the medieval history course I did in first year, taught by the astoundingly brilliant Professor Ian Stuart Robinson. It contained a sizeable chunk of papal history, mainly stuff about the conflict between the Empire and the papacy, and introduced me to some rather ball-breaking popes like Gregory VII who, having declared the would-be emperor Henry IV deposed and excommunicate, watched him do penance barefoot in the snow outside the castle at Canossa for days before he even came close to accepting his apologies. And even then, just two years later he was gleefully prophesying Henry’s death. Then there’s Julius II, who commissioned some of the greatest works of art the world has ever known and led his own troops into battle. These were popes that fought dirty, not hesitating to forge documents or to foment rebellion when saying a Mass wouldn’t quite do the trick. They tried to build up a papacy that held all the power in the world, floating a mighty two fingers at any temporal ruler they chose. It’s impossible to read the history of the papacy and not feel a profound respect for the faith, the conviction, and the sheer bloody-mindedness of these men.

But I digress. Quite a lot. I honestly didn’t start this as a ‘gwan the papacy!’ rant. Rather, I wanted to tell you about today. Today, I saw the pope. That’s right: I saw Saint Peter’s successor. I saw His Holiness. I saw Benny.

We went to Castel Gandolfo, a town in the Alban Hills outside Rome, where the pope has his summer residence, looking out over a beautiful volcanic lake. So we arrived in a rather dinky square early enough in the morning, and it was already filling up with (I’m making up the collective nouns here) a confusion of pilgrims, a formality of priests, and a consternation of nuns. We had a coffee but didn’t rush into the queue. Then, after an hour and a half spent sweating on strangers, being told to shut up by a man annoyed at our singing, screaming school-style at people skipping the queue (I enjoyed shouting ‘Protestants!’ and then ducking under others), and singing folk songs with some very proud Germans from the pope’s home province, we were told the palazzo was full and that we’d have to watch the audience on a big screen. We muttered, swore, and took our places.

The pope employs several MC priests to warm up the crowd – they do the ‘Anyone here from insert country here?’ thing, and the crowd goes wild. Especially the Poles. They brought a brass band.

It was this brass band that gave me one of the happiest moments of my life. Earlier, in the queue, they’d been playing a variety of golden oldies and sacred music. Then, we heard something new. A familiar song. I nodded along to the intro. Was it…? It couldn’t be. Not here. No way. But it was.

Y.M.C.A.

Here, outside the pope’s summer residence, the papal flags fluttering and nuns everywhere the eye could see, the world’s favourite gay classic was being blasted out by a hearty Polish brass band. And people were dancing. Little thickets of hands flew up, dancing along with the chorus. Yes, I laughed. But this wasn’t normal laughter. This was knee-bending, fist-clenching, primal laughter, combined with the purest happiness and gratitude for these plucky Poles. Wherever you are tonight, gentlemen, thank you.

So, having failed at the violent free-for-all that is the queue for the audience, we watched from the piazza. And it was great. The man himself gave a homily, spoke in six languages, did some more shout outs, and the crowd went wild. Proper All-Ireland final wild, with people chanting ‘Be-ne-detto’ and waving flags and flustering priests. Pope Benedict XVI also does this wonderful thing – when he welcomes a particular group and goes to bless them, he extends his arms towards them and wiggles his fingers like a magician at a children’s party. It’s amazing. That’s proper blessing. There’s no point in magic words without comic hand-waving, and this pope has both in abundance. He hasn’t forgotten that even Jesus started out as a party entertainer, until he was spotted at the Cana gig and became a star.

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