For years I’ve been somewhat of a Pope-a-file. I have books about the Popes and am somewhat fascinated by the whole institution. John Paul II will likely be the most influential pontiff of my lifetime. I doubt I’ll live long enough to see another of his kind. Too bad this whole priest sex abuse scandal has cast a dark cloud over his 27 year papacy.
My first trip to Rome was in 1988 where I originated a live broadcast on WOOD radio from the studios of Vatican Radio. I was hosted by Archbishop John Foley, who was the president of the papal commission of social communication. In other words, he was the popes PR guy. Foley was taking me on a private tour of St. Peter’s Basilica where, of all places, I ran into the pastor of my home parish in Lima, Ohio – Father Lamantia. When we saw each other we both exclaimed in unison “what are you doing here!” I love small world stories like that. I spent 10 days in Rome but never saw the pope.
My 2nd trip to Rome was when Benedict was Pope. No, I didn’t see him either. I think he was out of town.
My luck changed on my third trip to the eternal city. My close encounter with Pope Francis. Ahead of the trip I went to get a haircut. My barber, who is a know it all, was asking me about my upcoming trip. “Why would you want to go to Rome. It’s a dirty city, the traffic is horrible, the people are rude, the food is overrated, and there are pickpockets everywhere. Where are you staying in Rome?” He asked. I told him we were booked at the Michaelangelo hotel near the Vatican. “What a flea bag joint that is” he said. “The rooms are small, there are bedbugs, the elevators don’t work, the place stinks, and there are beggars hanging around the place”. I haven’t a clue on how he knew all this. He asked why I was going to Rome. I told him about my interest in popes and that I had bought a tour that includes a private audience with the pope.
“Private audience!!??”, he shouted as his shears were dangerously close to my neck, “I hear those so called private audiences have hundreds of people and you won’t stand a chance of getting within 50 yards of the pope. You’ve been conned!” Geez, I was glad to get out of there. What a know it all!
And now, the rest of the story. About a month later, after my trip was over, it was time for another haircut. As I walked into the shop, the barber loudly announced to everyone “the world traveler returns! So, didn’t I tell you Rome was a dirty place”. Quite the contrary I said. I found it to be clean, traffic was a bit crazy but we managed through it. The food was fabulous, and the people we delightful. And no pickpocket encounters. I could tell he was disappointed that his perception of Rome was wrong.
“What about that flea bag hotel? Did you get any bed bug bites”. No way, I said. That was a magnificent hotel. The rooms were spacious, the decor was recently updated, the linens, towels, and other amenities were first class. And, they even had a fruit basket and bottle of Preseco waiting for us.
The barber, now clearly agitated that he was once again misguided, said “oh yeah, we’ll what about that so called private audience with the pope?” He had me on this one. Well, you were right, I told him. There were hundreds of people there and I could barely see the pope. “Ahh Hah! I told you! I was right!!” He said.
But then a strange thing happened, I said. Two of the pope’s Swiss guards approached us and said the pope wanted to meet with us privately in the apostolic palace.
My barber was almost speechless. “So what happened?” He asked. Well, we were led into the popes private chambers and there he was. Pope Francis. He came up to me and whispered something into my ear.
The barber asked “what did he say?”
He wanted to know where I got the shitty haircut.