It is now just over a week since I returned from our most recent visit to Rome. The view above is a shot of my first sight of Saint Peter's Basilica after having emerged from the metro station- whence we had been brought from Stazzione Roma Termini at which we had been deposited from the shuttle bus linking from Ciampino airport where we had landed from a flight from Manchester- courtesy of Ryan Air. It was a sight to lift the spirits and confirmed that we really were in Rome. My two previous visits had been earth-bound. In 1979 I had arrived by train in time for the first Easter Triduum of the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II and in May 2000 we arrived in Rome for the Great Jubilee - again with Pope John Paul II- with children and caravan in tow all the way from Britain. On that occasion I had returned home with two ambitions unfulfilled- of seeing some more of the churches famed for their mosaics and, most significantly, of visiting the archaeological excavations around Saint Peter's tomb under the Vatican Basilica.
Early in January we booked the flight and, thanks to the wonderful Internet, tickets to visit the "Scavi" beneath St. Peter's. At that point we also considered getting tickets for the papal audience for the week of our visit but decided to wait and see how the papal diary would unfold. My preference was for attending a papal liturgy. As I explained at the time, an audience mainly consists of the pope speaking in some language I don't understand whereas the liturgy in Latin is largely, if not wholly, comprehensible. To pray with the holy father certainly seemed preferable to listening merely to the music of his talk. In early February we booked our hotel- the Hotel San Pietro, on the Via Gregorio VII barely a stone's throw from the Vatican. Things seemed to be falling into place very nicely. Perhaps I might reconsider the papal audience question. Then came the shocking news of Pope Benedict's proposed resignation.
There can hardly be a soul upon this earth who was not surprised by this news. For my insignificant self, however, it had a peculiar and disappointing resonance. I have repeatedly joked about how no sooner had we booked our visit than the Pope decided to resign,"If that shower are coming then I'm off!"- but I have found it all, and especially the ensuing developments, very saddening in ways I did not foresee.
As the cardinals entered the Conclave someone asked me what kind of pope I would like. Frankly, I didn't feel at all bothered. I am a Catholic.The pope is the pope is the pope. "How about an African pope?" I was asked. "Fine." I replied, "there are some great African cardinals". "Or," I was asked, "an Asian or one from Latin America?"
The last question pulled me up. Something in me was curiously uncomfortable with the idea of a Latin American Pope. At the time I tried to rationalise it. There was, after all the taint of Liberation Theology but I was also aware that, while the Church has its problems in Europe, it is hardly sunshine and flowers in southern America. Repeatedly we are told that the greatest number of Catholics live there but that the shortage of priests there makes us look positively over-endowed with clergy by comparison. And then Pope Francis was elected.
Pope Francis seems to be a very unusual pope. He doesn't do languages at all. On Easter Sunday it was evident that people from many nations had gathered in St Peter's Square with their national flags and banners. As ever the Esperanto lobby were quite visible. Pope Francis stuck solely to Italian. It is also clear that he does not like Latin and its place in the papal liturgies has become increasingly restricted to little more than the main parts sung by the schola. Before our visit I downloaded the booklet for the Sunday mass at which he was to ordain several priests of various nationalities. Attendance at a papal mass was seeming far less attractive than in the days of Blessed John Paul II and although we arrived outside St Peter's reasonably early on the morning of Sunday 21st April we decided to make for Santa Maria Maggiore.
(to be continued)
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