I met Benedict the way many people meet the Holy Father: in Rome, just yards outside his private apartment in Vaticano. It was a gorgeous Wednesday morning and hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world had come for the Wednesday morning general audience in St. Peter's Square. I was there with PoleDancer PhD, who had somehow seduced me into taking her to Rome and showing her around, because...she had never been there. Truth is, Pole Dancer PhD has never been anywhere without her husband, let alone out of the country by herself. And she was passionate about seeing Thuh Pope! What is it about Protestants and the Pope? Have they all forgotten they came through the Lutherans to be where they are today? Giving $25 to the cancer fund annually and attending Easter and Christmas church services as a cultural rite of holiday? Is Thuh Pope! another part of that cultural experience? "I went to Rome and saw Thuh Pope!" So there we were, she and I, at a general audience of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI.
He was formerly known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. When he became the successor of JP2, I was a tiny bit daunted and dismayed because of his extremely conservative, rigid politics. I know these Germans well. And as always, you can never separate the politics from the theology. Which follows which? But I was reassured by Monsignor Ribble himself that Ratzinger was a good man; that he was as people said, wicked smaht, and that his politics followed his theology and not vice versa. Besides, at his age, he had a brief window of leadership. I also realized that I really did believe that Ratzinger became Benedict at the invitation of Our Lord; that he was the successor of Peter by the hand of divine invitation. So Benedict is was. And is. I am a Catholic by choice and am blessed, not burdened, by church and the work of our Church.
Having done this general audience thing several times over, I knew what we needed to do to get to the best seats. I checked handbags and outfits before we left the hotel, in an effort to speed us through security. We left the hotel and walked into the Vatican past Castel Sant'Angelo, and wounded our way though the queues to the final security checkpoint, where we sailed through. I dashed up the side aisle and secured seats in the second row of the second section. Roughly, second row balcony right, for those theatre goers in the crowd. So we settled in to wait for the events of the day to begin.
A general audience at the Vatican is one of the most joyful things you'll ever do. Many of the people there have saved their money for years and years to be there, so they are gleeful and giddy as their dreams come true. People wear their natives costumes and nuns still looks like nuns in Rome, so there is much to see and hear, as the languages of the entire world swirl in and around your head, confounding and delighting you simultaneously. This is all staged in the set of St. Peter's Basilica, whose architectural splendor is hardly rivaled anywhere. It is a sublime experience, not duplicated in Christendom or in the other secular and religious capitals of the world. And if it's a beautiful day in Rome....
A roar went up from the crowd and the chants of "Il Papa!" began. In my previous experience, the Popemobile had come up a center aisle to the main altar set up on the steps of the basilica. I was confused by the chants of the crowd as to where the action was to begin, much as you aren't completely clear where a prize fighter will enter the arena to make his way to the ring. I scanned the throngs of people furiously, still more confused and getting irritated because I couldn't see Benedict's car and the security team in place. The crowd now thundered with a frenzy that made me a tiny bit panicky. I shrugged my shoulders in frustration and looked up and Benedict was at my elbow. He had entered on our side, right on our aisle. The people in the first row kissed his hand and bowed their head for a blessing and I stood there incredulously as he looked straight into my eyes, held them and smiled deeply, with an intensity and knowledge I still cannot describe to this day. I was literally struck down. Completely overcome, my eyes filled with tears and I had to sit down as the people and the Pole Dancer around me jumped and waved and photoed the Holy Father, Pope Benedict. I sat in my chair as the peopled towered over and about me, the energy of that one moment of Benedict's presence still clearly with me. After several more moments, I was able to join the crowd again, slowly rising to cheer in joy and jubilation of the moment and in adoration of our leader here on earth.
After the service began, I thought about what had just happened. The fact is, I was awestruck, thunderstruck, gob-smacked. I decided it was the surprise factor and it was such a close encounter at that, with the people in the first row all genuflecting, I had his undivided attention for a few seconds. I was just caught up by the wave and rolled into the surf, with the heat of the day and the swarms of people doing their part to overwhelm me as well. And I couldn't believe I never got a picture! He was right there and I couldn't get the shot off. Actually, I had dropped the camera. Anyway.
The Pole Dancer soon became fidgety and restless as the Holy Father greeted the crowd seven different times, in seven different languages. Already the novelty had worn off for her, but I am always blessed and humbled to be with people from my church that I have not met and loved every minute of the two hours we spent together on that day in June.
After the final blessing, Benedict came back down the center aisle in his car with his security team flanking him and to my utter surprise, AGAIN, his car turned and he came right in front of us. But this time I was ready; I got the camera focused and ready to go and has he approached us, once again, he looked deeply into my eyes and smiled, the smile of a person who has known me for thousands of years. My jaw dropped and an enormous electrical charge coursed through my body, knocking me off my feet, sending me back to my chair with a heavy thump and a clatter as my camera hit the bricks again. His car turned into the final exit and He turned and waved to the Pole Dancer and me. I feebly waved back, this time able to crack a little smile as I sprawled on my chair, completely weak with no physical capability whatsoever.
And then I knew, for sure, what had happened. And I knew what Paul has said is all true. Because on that day in June in Italy, the Holy Spirit paid me a visit, not once but twice, to remind me that not only was I wrong about Benedict but also that I don't have the wisdom of the ages. I don't have all the answers and I can't begin to think my way through all the answers and the variables that factor into the answers. I am not as smart as I would like to think, no matter what my accomplishments and experiences on this earth have been. The Holy spirit had me know that It works in ways known only to Itself but if I have faith, if I keep faith, the path shall become clear and wisdom will light itself, much as a beautiful painting on a wall.
So Benedict is so very special to me. Many, many people claim JP2 was their Pope. He was the only Pope I ever knew so I was happy to throw in on that one. Until that day in Rome, when the Holy Spirit spoke through Benedict, with a message of love and blessing that lives with me to this very moment. Love and blessings to you and all that read this. Keep the faith. Stay brave. Our time is at hand.
The 'Kan EWA