On March 28, before the sun even rose, I climbed into what Italians likely call a car. That is a generous term. Two young women from Africa in beautiful native garb joined me as we squeezed ourselves into the backseat. For some time we were driven through winding roads that a woman from India had described as, "Just like Goa but a bit prettier." She did not mean it as a compliment, I think.
Finally, we reached a wall, with a gate. The three of us peeled ourselves out of the backseat and stretched a bit in the chilly early morning air. The African women were freezing, even this Midwesterner was a bit chilled. We took in our surroundings. We were somewhere in the Vatican. There were buildings and shrubbery and who knows what else. It was early, we were bewildered, we were cold. Our driver and the car left.
Our escort motioned for us to follow. He spoke Italian only it seemed. My German, Spanish, and English were not too helpful this morning. The Africans knew a few words of English, but French was their language of choice. We followed this man who I never identified but was known by all the guards. He took us through walkways and driveways out the side entrance We walked to a small cafe where he kindly bought us espressos to warm us and energize us for what was to come.
The Palm Sunday Mass at St. Peter's.
I had been attending the Pontifical Council for the Laity's Youth Forum on Human Sexuality. You can see some posts I made about it here. The shock of the week came with the request that I read at Sunday Mass. I agreed, no big deal, right? My laid back attitude lasted about 3.2 seconds until it dawned on me that the Sunday Mass was at St. Peter's with the Pope presiding. Insert awkward moment of falling over about five people at this point.
Back to St. Peter's on March 28, 2010. We were taken to our seats, in a reserved section. I left my bag under my seat. Only when you are a row away from Italian royalty and the Cardinals of the Church do you feel comfortable leaving your backpack in Rome. The Swiss Guards nearby didn't hurt either.
I could go on as it was an amazing experience.
However, I want to focus on the Pope. I was reading the first reading from Isaiah:
The Lord GOD has given me
a well-trained tongue,
that I might know how to speak to the weary
a word that will rouse them.
Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
Besides being one of my favorite passages (and thankfully without some of those particularly challenging Old Testament names), in retrospect it could not be more appropriate for my encounter with the Pope.
I come from good, hearty German stock so perhaps that is why I feel like Pope Benedict could be my grandfather. My Grandpa D had a thick shock of white hair, was feisty and loved his music (he sang in a barber shop quartet). So maybe the two aren't clones of each other, but somehow my mind links the two.
With the news that Pope Benedict is retiring, I feel like a grandfather I nearly knew is fading away. I find the words of Isaiah floating in my mind and I think Pope Benedict could claim them for his own. Though given a difficult era to shepherd the Church, I believe history will be honest and Pope Benedict "shall not be put to shame."
Just as the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Pope Benedict has given the Papacy his all. When most men dream of fishing or watching their grandchildren's baseball games and dance recitals, Pope Benedict took on perhaps the most challenging 'job' in the world.
No matter what history, the press, or the plethora of social media commentators may say, I will think of my day, standing on the steps of St. Peter's proclaiming Isaiah. The day when I was a Midwestern girl in her plain black dress, reading for the Pope. It was an honor and a pleasure.
May you find peace, rest, and fulfillment in your retirement, Pope Benedict. And if you want, I make the best Gingersnaps - translated the recipe from my great-grandma's German handwriting. Just let me know, I'll send you some.