When Pope Benedict XVI gave his final blessing in February before stepping down from the Holy See, and new Pope Francis I issued his first benedictions recently, it reminded me of receiving a blessing from Pope John Paul II in Vatican City in 1980. The pontiff had only been in office a couple of years, and it was my second trip to Rome in two years.
I had the good fortune to be there the second time on Easter Sunday.
Whenever our Navy ships docked at friendly ports of call in the Mediterranean Sea, many of the U.S. Marines and sailors disembarked for tours to nearby sites of interest. From Naples one can venture to Pompeii, the Isle of Capri and Rome, and from Genoa it’s not that far to Florence, the Leaning Tower of Pisa (where the circular stone steps are worn in the middle from centuries of monks ascending and descending), Monte Carlo in Monaco where they race the Grand Prix and the French Riviera.
But Rome is special.
Just inside St. Peter’s Basilica, which anchors the Vatican, is Michelangelo’s Pieta, the statue of Mary holding the slain Jesus. Even back then it was encased in a huge plexiglass box since “In 1972, a Hungarian-born man (later found to be mentally disturbed) rushed the statue with a hammer and started hitting it, including the left arm of the Virgin, which came off, and her head, breaking her nose and some of her left eye” (italianrenaissance.org).
Michelangelo’s statue of Moses is inside as well, then there’s the magnificent four-columned altar and canopy by Bernini, the dome of the Basilica — 448 feet from the floor to the top of the exterior cross — so let’s just say it was all jaw-dropping to a boy from the mountains of north Georgia.
Outside, a crowd of thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square, with statues of the saints formed in a semi-circle topping the colonnade. Suddenly Pope John Paul appeared, a tiny figure framed in a window with a long red banner with gold embroidery hanging below it. Since the address and blessing were in Italian and Latin — and my freshman year of Latin in high school had pretty much worn off — I couldn’t understand much of what the pope said, but saw him waving his hands to absolve and commend us before the Almighty.
Buoyed, I went inside the Basilica to see it again and some time later walked down the street to a phone exchange in an attempt to call home. Keep in mind this was well before the day of cellphones, satellite phones or even digital cameras. Sometimes it took three hours to successfully place a call to the U.S., but lo and behold, my attempt went straight through in what I considered a miracle.
Parents fear being awakened in the middle of the night by a phone call once their children become older, but this time — just a couple of hours before the dawning of Easter Sunday back in the States — mine sleepily shared in a joyous occasion.
Mark Millican is a former staff writer for The Daily Citizen.