When I walked into St. Peter's Basilica my mind went silent. I quit thinking, feeling, or reacting. I walked around for a few minutes in a deep and abiding silence, all brain activity swept away by pure awe.
It was like I had walked into a man-made canyon, with every nook and cranny filled with art. I would strain my eyes looking at some far-off corner and see a statue in it. I gazed up at countless panels in the ceiling, only to see that each one was painted in intricate detail. I followed the shafts of light, streaming through the windows as they have for centuries, and in every place they fell they led my eyes to splendor.
My reverence was broken finally by the reaction of my traveling partner, a fellow backpacker from Whittier, California. Standing in one of humankind's greatest achievements, he said, "It's just so gosh-darn TALL!"
This brought me back to earth, which I needed. One can only stand so much pure awe. I was in backpacker mode, after all, and in that headspace, places are not to be experienced in some out-of-body state; they are to be simply "done." We were "doing" Rome in a few days, and today we were "doing" The Vatican, checking it off a list that included the Colosseum, the Forum, and a lot of fountains.
But that day was a special day to be at The Vatican. It was Pope Day -- our phrase, not The Vatican's. It seems that whenever the Holy Father is in town on a Wednesday, he holds a "general audience" in an auditorium next door to the main basilica. It's not a religious ceremony, just a chance to, as we put it, dig his papal presence. So we quickly did the top of the dome, the roof, Peter's bones, and Michelangelo's Pieta so we could hustle over to see the Supreme Daddy -- again, our phrase, not The Vatican's.
Sitting there with four fellow backpackers in the back of a large, unadorned auditorium, we wondered what we were about to see. "If it's not a religious ceremony," someone asked, "what's he going to do?"
"Well, what does the pope ever do?" our man from Whittier asked. "He'll walk around with his arms held out and his hands turned up, like he's telling the crowd to make more noise. Then he'll turn his hands down like he's telling them to chill out. Then he'll blow some kisses or something. You know: He popes."
The guy had a point; you ever see the pope do anything else? The pope popes.
Anyway, this time Big Daddy was running late -- we joked that maybe he was having trouble with his little hat -- so we enjoyed the atmosphere in the room. There were several thousand people there, and apparently all but the five of us would one day put the experience down as a life highlight. They were singing, clapping, dancing, and holding hands, and the big show hadn't even started yet.
Finally a flock of cardinals came onto the stage, and with no introduction at all the Holiest Dude in the World came out. The crowd exploded into song, dance, and flashing cameras as this little old man in a plain white robe walked around, yes, with his arms held out and his hands turned up. Somebody said it looked like he was saying, "Y'all give me some love!" He was poping like crazy.
After several minutes of celebration, he sat down in a large but simple chair and began in a low, rich voice. He spoke Italian, and after just a few words the crowd laughed and cheered. I turned to the guy from Whittier and said, "Did the Ultimate Big Guy just hit the stage with a joke?" Said Whittier, "Maybe he said, 'Sorry I'm late; I was having trouble with my little hat.'"
The pope spoke on, but since we don't speak Italian the thrill wore off pretty quickly. But he did do something very impressive. He gave summaries of his talk in 11 languages, including French, German, Spanish, English, Polish, and even Swahili! Sure, he was reading most of them, but with each new language a segment of the crowd erupted into singing and dancing. At one point an entire children's choir from Mexico sang a chorus of "Hallelujah." They gave the pope a lot of love.
Ah, yes, his message: He said that in the Old Testament the Holy Spirit was the wind, and today the wind is still blowing, if only we can feel it and go where it leads us. Or something like that. All I remember for sure is that when he got through, he came out and worked the crowd for a while, kissing and blessing. He got within 10 feet of us at one point, and he looked like the kindest and gentlest man in the world. There were a few moments on that day when I felt sort of a soft spot for the Catholic Church.
Again, my buddy from Whittier rescued me from my reverence: "Come on," he said, "let's blow out of here like the Holy Spirit and go do the Sistine Chapel."