One Saturday when Glenn and I lived in Rome I happened to notice some simple posters tacked up on nearby telephone poles between ads for “French lessons” and communist rallies. The flyer said that the Bishop of Rome was coming to our small local church the following Sunday. After we realized that this bishop was also the pope we walked a block to the church on the following morning. To our surprise, only about thirty people were waiting, some in matching sweat pants and shirts (a tutto or “all”), instead of a huge crowd dressed in Sunday best. Two dogs engaged in amatory behavior to no one’s concern. We surveyed this strange scene, completely the opposite of the pomp and cheering we had expected.
A convoy of five black limos eventually pulled up in front of the church. Photographers jumped out of the first one. The next several limos contained officials and the security detail. The pope came last. He looked just like his pictures, recognizable anywhere. The photographers busily rearranged the sparse crowd to make it look bigger. We were encouraged to join the small group meeting His Holiness, but since we are not of that faith it did not seem appropriate in this intimate setting. The pope blessed everyone before the parishioners entered their church. We were having a lunch party that afternoon. When our guests arrived we all walked back to the church where he was still communing with his flock, now blessing a few children with beaming parents looking on. But the same aura of “no big deal” remained.
The casual affair in our neighborhood was in complete contrast to a papal encounter with visiting friends. When we arrived at the papal residence, we stood packed in with hundreds of foreign tourists, some dropping to their knees or nearly fainting with joy at their coming proximity to the pope. All the while, we were guarded by soldiers armed with sub-machine guns standing on the periphery of the piazza or crouching on adjacent roof tops. Our friends, who were non-Catholic, had tears in their eyes being overcome with religious feeling. Whatever our own religious persuasions, we too were impressed with the power the pope held over his audience as have so many of his predecessors over two millennia.
Excerpt from Coins in the Fountain