Thursday, September 8, 2016

nella Sala Clementina

7 settembre
Today we had our audience with the Holy Father. It was quite an affair, first of all we gathered at the statue at the bottom of the Avventine Hill for a photo, and then we boarded 4 buses to take us across town to the Vatican. After a pretty long wait in the piazza and then going through security (like in the airport at TSA, I was lucky that I did not have a pectoral cross or a ring) we were ushered in through the bronze doors. I did not understand the significance of this until we were there. Those are the great doors that lead into the Apostolic Palace, guarded by the Swiss Guard. What a majestic building, I must say. There was beautiful statuary everywhere (the one I noted closely was a bronze by Salvador Dalì of St George slaying the dragon). Then up huge flights of stairs to the Clementine Hall (Sala Clementina), which of course is the famous place for smaller receptions; also where the deceased pope’s body is laid in state until it is ushered in to the basilica. We had to wait another half and hour or so, while several young men in grey tuxedos, ushers of some sort I assumed, looked around and went in and out of doors. Then the photographers came in and we knew we were close.

Suddenly the lights came on and Pope Francis came in from the right. What a beautiful face, and a smile and eyes that could light up a whole room. He seemed very relaxed and spry. He greeted Abbot Notker warmly and they spoke for some time. Notker gave a little speech and then the Holy Father spoke as well from a prepared text. It was hard to make out all the Italian, but there was nothing really new or startling that either one said, though I was happy to hear both of them mention interreligious dialogue and how it was entrusted to the monks. The pope was flanked by the ubiquitous Archbishop Georg Ganswein, his secretary and Benedict XVI’s too, and another archbishop the entire time. The presidents of the various congregations were all in the front row, along with several Benedictine women. And we assumed that they were going to be the only ones to greet him personally, but to my surprise the ushers kept going back row-by-row and just kept going. Each and every one of us got to greet him. I thought that was extraordinary. We were at least 250 and it took almost 45 minutes. I just said, “Saluti della California. Ti volgiamo bene––Greetings from California. We love you.” And he said to me, simply, in English, “Pray for me.” When I met John Paul II and shook his hand the thing I noted was his watch (why did he need to wear a watch?) and his loafers. The thing that I noted about Francis was how small and soft his hands seemed to be, and his beautiful eyes.

Toward the end there was a tense moment with some younger man in what seemed to be a home made black habit with all kinds of accoutrements, including a large black zucchetto. When he got to the pope he immediately put his left hand on the pope’s shoulder and bent down very close to him and started talking, as if he was praying over him. Everybody got nervous and several guys around me asked, “Is he part of our meeting?” No one had ever seen him before. After a half a minute or so, the archbishops were giving him waving signs to move on, and then the ushers started closing in and one of them grabbed his elbow, but still he persisted. Finally someone got him to move on but instead of leaving he went up to Msgr. Gaswein and started talking to him for a good while as well. Georg was smiling at the end but with a bit of an exasperated look on his face. I suppose we will find out who he was tomorrow.

Then back down the long staircases and into the Court of Damasus. Abbot Jeremy made me stand for a picture there and then had me take one of him as well, telling me not many people get to be there. (I think that may be where the Holy Father does donuts with his little Ford Escort.) From there we were looking right up at the papal apartments, which are right next to the Sala Clementina, but of course are unused now, Francis instead getting driven back to the Casa Santa Marta for his pranzo. I’m told the morning is for official audiences such as ours, but in the afternoon he still keeps his own calendar and has private meetings over there.

Such majesty I have never seen before, impressive as history and architecture, surely, but nothing was as impressive as his smile, his warmth and charisma. He seemed perfectly at home in himself and for all the world from now on that is exactly what a pope looks like to me.

I must admit I keep hearing this paragraph from Bruno’s Future of Wisdom in my head, which Jeff Pickerill and I lip-synched along with when it was quoted at the Wisdom symposium in early July: at least sometimes the Church seems...

... too exalted in an artificial (and obviously human) rather than a spiritual way. The church often seems a kind of intermediate world of institutional pseudo-reality, sometimes even a solemn out-of-date world of clerical artificiality, tediously mediating between two realities which are already one: God and humanity.  It is this church which is not real but a comic fantasy; the reality is the body of Christ.

The papal apartments from the Court of Damasus.
And the same can apply to monasticism. During our meetings yesterday and again today in the Sala Clementina I kept thinking of Romuald making a cell in the swamps, going back to the inspiration of the desert fathers, or Francis showing up in his beggar’s rags. And I wondered if our ersatz young Benedictine saw himself as one of those prophets. It can be a slippery slope just to sit in judgment on the institution too, rather than just “walk the other way” as they did.

They were serving lunch up at Sant’Anselmo but I didn’t want to walk back up there and it was too late for pranzo here at San Gregorio and it’s a Roman gorgeous day, sunny but not too hot, so I slipped into some shorts and a T-shirt and took my longest excursion yet, the Metro up to the Spanish steps where I treated myself to a big slice of pizza, a caffe lungo and a cannolo, and then walked all the way back to San Gregorio, only getting (as Daniel Boone would say) “bewildered” once.

Please pray for the brothers back in Big Sur. My biggest concern may come true: there is still a chance that the monks will be evacuated within the next ten days, unless CalFire can hold the fire line.