At long last, I’m back.
If you haven’t been with me for this whole nostalgic journey, you might want to catch up here: Rome Trip 2011
The doors of the basilica opened at 7am, and the Sisters, Megan, and I headed right for John Paul II’s tomb. As I mentioned before, access to the altar where he’s buried is restricted. They have curtains up so you can’t see the tomb from the main body of the basilica, and you have to walk around a barrier and convince a guard that you’re going there to pray. If you’re successful, he’ll let you go pray in front of the tomb — as long as you kneel in the pews that have been set up and no closer. I’m sure they have good intentions, but it just seems to get a bit ridiculous when a single little sister is kneeling at the communion rail or at the foot of the steps up to the altar, and the guard comes over to make her back up and kneel by the pews. I’m sure it’s to prevent a circus, though, so I should be thankful.
So the guards were standing there, apparently letting no one over to his tomb. We stood there patiently while the group of assorted Sisters in front of us talked to him. One of the Dominicans quipped to me that if all else failed, she’d whip out her work ID card (let’s just say she works somewhere that starts with a V and ends with an “atican”), which made us all chuckle, because she’s the least likely person to show off her connections like that. But then the group of assorted Sisters began filing past him, so the Dominicans followed them and Megan and I followed them. We were all counting on the fact that there would be Mass at John Paul II’s tomb that morning, just like there was Mass at every other altar. As we were passing, the guard tried to stop Sr. Jane Dominic, who was right behind me (I just avoid eye contact with guards at times like this). Now again, he probably had good intentions (the pews were almost full), but it’s rather ridiculous to stop her when she’s clearly with the five other Dominican sisters in front of her. Why not let her pass and stop the group behind us? Luckily, she’s fluent in Italian and rattled off something to the guard, and he let her through.
We crammed into the pews and knelt, praying our preparatory prayers for the Mass that was bound to start any minute.
Yep, any minute, the priest was going to file in with a server or two and begin Mass.
Maybe at 7:10.
Time passes really slowly when you’re not sure what’s up.
Some people convinced the guards to let them stand behind the pews, along the low wall that was put up to separate the area from the rest of the basilica.
Some Sisters left the pews. Some other people took their place.
I looked at my watch for the sixty-fifth time.
Surely there would be Mass at his tomb. After all, one of the Dominicans had tried to book the altar for a priest so we could have Mass in English, and the altar was apparently booked the entire day.
Or was that just the Italian way of telling her there weren’t going to be any Masses on the altar? That seems about right. Instead of saying, “oh, Sister, that altar isn’t available that day because no one is going to have Mass there,” they would just say, “no, no, that altar is booked.”
I was slowly convincing myself there was no Mass there. At least there obviously wasn’t a 7am Mass there.
I sat down, having mercy on my knees. (have you ever knelt on a kneeler in Italy?)
There was more Sister shuffling — some left, some came. “My Dominicans” (as Megan called them) stayed strong. They had front seats and weren’t budging.
That priest was going to come any minute. I just knew it…
Six priests filed past the guard and Mass commenced. It was in Italian, as I suspected it would be, but it was enough to hear in the opening prayer, “Giovanni Paolo secondo… Papa.”
This may sound ridiculous, but it was at that Mass that it began to sink in that John Paul II was Blessed John Paul II. Sure, I had watched his beatification. I pray to him every day. But to celebrate Mass for his feast… to hear prayers written just for his feast… to hear the readings chosen particularly for him… it was overwhelming. We were invoking him as we invoke St. Peter or St. Catherine or St. Joan of Arc or St. Maximilian Kolbe.
I was celebrating the feast of someone whom I had seen. Whose funeral I had attended. And now he’s in heaven.
The Gospel chosen was the passage from John when Christ asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and when Peter responds- three times – in the affirmative, Christ tells him, “Feed my sheep.” Hearing those words, realizing this Gospel was chosen particularly for John Paul, reflecting on how much he loved Christ, how passionately he fed Christ’s sheep… I wept.
I may have wept more at that Mass than I did at his funeral. God is so good. He continually raises up saints for us, examples of holiness, friends to intercede.
Fifty years from now, John Paul II will be just a picture or a statute to the young people. Just like Pius XII is to me, whose statue is tucked in a niche close to John Paul II’s tomb. John Paul II was an incredible pontiff, but he is one pillar among many in our Church. And fifty years from now, there will be another Holy Father for the sheep. Not another John Paul II, of course, but another shepherd — Christ will never leave his flock unattended. Thanks be to God.
Sr. Jane Dominic read the readings for Mass (in beautiful Italian), which was a nice little treat. After Mass, we told the Sisters goodbye, lingered around the basilica for a little while longer (taking advantage of the fact that the tour groups hadn’t completely taken over the place yet), and kept seeing Lino Rulli. Megan kept making eye contact with him on accident and also kept trying to convince me to go say hi to him. I never did.
After we left, we headed over to a little caffe on Piazza della Citta Leonina. I don’t know the name of it, but it’s the same little caffe Cardinal Ratzinger used to go to every morning. It’s three or four doors down from his apartment door. It’s a tad on the expensive side (the CDF must pay well), but we decided it was worth the treat for JPII’s feast. It’s pretty incredible to walk past Cardinal Ratzinger’s old front door and get a cappuccino and cornetto at the little caffe and think back 7 years. Has anyone’s life changed more drastically overnight than his did on April 19, 2005? There’s a story that he wanted to go back to the caffe on April 20th and someone had to break it to him that he could never go back. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it’s definitely illustrative.
Whenever I go to Rome and see the Holy Father, I always find myself reflecting on the prison in which he lives. And his secretaries, too, for that matter. Msgr. Ganswein was teaching before he was Cardinal Ratzinger’s secretary (and possibly even while he was his secretary at the CDF, I think) and probably had a life outside the Vatican. Now he can’t walk down the Borgo Pio to get his haircut. What a sacrifice. Their lives haven’t been their own since their ordination, but now they’re even more radically Someone else’s.
After breakfast, we walked over to the Borgo Pio to do some serious souvenir shopping. We realized we needed to get all of our religious articles before the next day, so that we could take them to Mass and have them blessed by the Holy Father. So we were on a bit of a deadline. Souvenirs like my new boots and purse could wait. Statues and medals and Popeners couldn’t!
We went to my favorite stores — the little store on the corner of Borgo Pio (and Via Mascherino, I believe)– I have no idea the name of it, but among the chachka they have some nice medals and keychains and things. And Popeners. I always bring a handful of them back — they’re the perfect souvenir. (As one of my friends quipped, “With this, I now can offend pretty much everyone!” I’m pretty sure he’ll whip it out when he’s amongst his Baptist friends very soon.) I scouted out a few different places for Popeners, but this store had the best quality ones, and they actually were among the least expensive. I bought so many the girl threw in a free one.
We also stopped in the silver store, a nice place on Borgo Pio (again, I have no idea of the name of it- we just call it “the silver store” in my family) that sells an abundance of nice silver plaques (like these, minus the frames) for pretty inexpensively. Not to mention crucifixes, medals, etc.
Another favorite stop is the icon store Centro Russia Ecumenica which is full of — you guessed it — icons. Books, calendars, icons unframed, icons mounted on wood… you name it. There’s always chant playing and I always lose track of time as I take it all in. They always have several different Centro Aletti pieces — often details from their larger works. I lived with one of the mosaicists from Centro Aletti when I lived on the grounds of the Lebanese Maronite monastery in 2008, and was able to hear him describe the theology behind many of the works, was able to tour their studio, etc. So it’s always neat to see their work. (Last time I purchased a few different Centro Aletti Nativity details, including one from this chapel. I love this chapel because the artists placed Jesus in the apse in such a way that when you enter the Church, it looks like He is standing on the altar — the one who lays in the manger for animals has now become our food.)
One of our last stops was Grazie al Cielo, a store which my friend Trena introduced me to in 2008. I was excited to show it to Megan because it’s not your usual Rome souvenir shop. Everything in the store is made by missions or religious communities. So not only are the religious items unique, handmade, and beautiful, but you know you’re contributing to a community when you purchase them. Megan and I browsed around while the gentleman working was conversing with the only other shopper in the store. When she left, he turned to us and spoke perfect English. After small conversation, he told us the story of the store.
The store is run by a religious community, The Community of St. Therese of the Child Jesus, and is their main source of income. (So you’re not just supporting the missions or religious communities who made the items, you’re supporting them, too! bonus!) They are a mixed religious community — religious, married couples, and a priest. After he worked in the business world for many many years (hence the fluency in English — he worked for Chase- or was it Citibank?- and possibly a cell phone company) he left and he and his wife joined the community.
We ended up staying in there for quite some time– he was a gracious host, and even gave us espresso. (He actually apologized for not offering it to us sooner.) I’ve never been hosted in a store like I was hosted there. Megan and I both regret not asking his name, but after reading this article, I’d venture to guess he’s the Francesco Sortino mentioned as the store’s manager.
Megan bought some beautiful Christmas ornaments (I love the fact that the things there aren’t found anywhere else in Italy), and the more we talked, the more I eyed the statues behind us. I had first fallen in love with the statues of the Sisters of Bethlehem in France when Trena took me to the store in 2008. Francesco told me they are made with a special wet stone or sand or something. Perhaps they’re not everyone’s taste, but I fell in love with them.
These pictures don’t do the statues justice:
There was one statue in particular that had caught my eye in 2008. So it definitely wasn’t an impulse buy when I turned around and took it off the shelf. I had been thinking about it for two and a half years. : ) At least that’s what I told myself as I placed it on my counter.
And what better Christmas present for your parents — the people who not only made it possible for me to study in Rome twice, but the people who instilled in me the Faith? I owe my love for the Church to them.
Again, I don’t think the picture does it justice, but there it is. The most striking and unique statue of John Paul II I have ever seen. It was his feast day, and I was going to get it blessed the next day by his successor.
We bid Francesco goodbye. I hope he’s still there the next time I go to Rome. It’s a hard time to be a store owner in Italy. He admitted to us that they can barely afford their rent on the Borgo Pio. There are lots of stores closing their doors (including one a great little silver shop on Liturgical Row by Santa Maria sopra Minerva. I went several times and it was never open. : ( I fear they’ve closed for good. It’s very sad, because they had the nicest medals in Rome.) So if you’re ever in Rome, do yourself a favor and go visit Grazie al Cieo (Borgo Pio, 184). You won’t be disappointed. Their things are very reasonably priced for the quality, too. You can see a list of all the communities and missions whose products they sell here.
After we felt relatively successful in the religious article shopping department, we headed over to Pizzeria Florida, one of my favorite on-the-go lunch spots, and got a cheap delicious lunch (which we proceeded to get all over us as we ate it sitting on the side of the road by the cat sanctuary aka the place where Caesar was killed). Then we headed back to the house for a true riposo, since we were getting kind of cranky and we had a big night still ahead of us.