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I have an audience with Pope Pius XII (along with 35,000 others)

 

My audience with Pope Pius XII today was shared with 35,000 others, including Eamon de Valera of Ireland and his wife and daughter.

I went to St. Peter’s in an American Ford, driven by Vatican chauffeur, thinks to a letter of introduction written by Father Joseph Breitenbeck of Detroit.

In that respect I was one of a very select few, for in Italy today a ride in any automobile - not to mention an American automobile - is a luxury. Taxes are high and gasoline costs just about a dollar a gallon.

So the great majority of those who go to St. Peter’s in this Holy Year do so by bus or even on foot. Some have ridden horseback, as did one old woman from the south of Italy whose picture has been in all the Roman newspapers.

All the papers except one, that is “Unita”, the communist paper, keeps repeating that there are no pilgrims coming to Rome for Holy Year - it is only Catholic propaganda,

As a tourist - a Protestant tourist - I have been to many “tourist” places. And everywhere - in the Coliseum, at the old Roman ruins, in all the numerous ancient churches I have visited in Rome, there have been great numbers of pilgrims. Led by their priests, they have come from all over the world.

This afternoon, at St. Paul’s - one of the four basilicas good Catholics must visit, the one in which hang portraits of all 264 Roman Catholic popes - I saw at least a hundred German pilgrims, led by the red-robed students priest (referred to by Romans, even by the student-priests themselves as “boiled crabs”), following lighted candles toward the altar at the center.

Yesterday afternoon, as I dickered with a cameo salesman in the shadow of the Coliseum - that incredible monument to the grandeur that was Rome which still stands in the heart of the city - I smiled and gestured until a dozen or so old women understood I wanted to photograph them with their priest.

These were the poor and the old and the hungry pilgrims my Roman friends had told me were flooding Rome. I wanted a picture of them, in their long-black, worn-out dresses, with their drawstring bags full of food from home, eagerly seeing the sights of Rome in shoes that would be dubiously received by almost any charity agency in Detroit.

As the driver honked his way - everybody honks at everybody else in Rome, even at priests and nuns - up the brand-new Via Conciliazone, leading to Vatican city, we passed bus-load after bus-load, all bound for the noon-time audience the Pope scheduled for both Saturday and Sunday of this week.

Because I’m Protestant and don’t know much about these matters Bishop Martin J. O’Connor of the American College instructed the driver to take me to the very door of St. Peter’s. A big, heavy-set man in a long black robe trimmed in the very individual purple-red everybody in Rome recognizes as the “Cardinal’s Red”, Bishop O’Connor told me he had had 700 requests for audiences this week alone, that there were 200,000 pending for the weeks to come.

So we drove past several sets of the colorful Swiss guards dressed in the red and orange and blue uniforms designed for them so many years ago by Michelangelo. Standing at attention, wearing their black helmets topped by ostrich plumes of Cardinal’s Red, they held their long black spears just as if they meant business.

Magic words spoken in Italian got me through the door, past more long lines of guards, through several big crowds of the faithful, and high up on a special wooden platform built just under the enormous statue of St. Andrew beneath St. Peter’s famous dome.

I looked silently about me. On the benches in front of me and standing raptly all around were a group of nuns from an orphanage in Verona, accompanied by many of their charges.

As we waited a voice from high above read the announcements - in Italian, French, German, Spanish and English. (The Pope speaks nine languages.)

Across from me, on the side of the famous gold-colored window of Bellini - the only bit of St. Peter’s damaged by bombing during the war - were a group of pilgrims from India, garbed in their beautiful, colorful saris. Everywhere were the women in black - the nuns, the widows, the old.
The young too, in the little black Spanish lace veil seen everywhere in Rome these days. And here and there a delegation of children, usually in black, too - many of them little boys with a dash of color in their ties.

Soon the white handkerchiefs began waving - sea on sea of white handkerchiefs, waving from as far as I could see. A sister on my right handed me her precious binoculars and I look through them toward the front of St. Peter’s, to see the white-robed Pope, mounted on a gold-embroidered chair borne on the shoulders of men dressed all in Cardinal’s Red, slowly being borne toward the tribune in the center.

Slowly, reaching out with both hands toward the people on both sides of him, and swaying from side to side, he came nearer and nearer, until he was finally just under the great dome. Then his bearers brought him slowly around the tribune so that hose to the back and on the sides would be able to see and be blessed.

He looked like very happy man, this slender, lean-faced 74-year-old Pope Pius XII, and you got the feeling that he desperately wanted to reach out to all, missing none.

There were many, many “Viva’s!” Then came his voice, acknowledging the presence of the people everywhere, calling the names of the countries and the regions and the towns. As each name was spoken, the white handkerchiefs waved even more frantically and many were the tears from under the cowls of the nuns on our stand.

A fat old woman behind me, who came to the stand after I did, almost fell of of the bench on which she was elevated, landing heavily on my shoulder in breaking her fall. The man with her, evidently a son, was all apologies, as was she, once the tears were wiped away.

Slowly, deliberately, the Pope read the special Holy Year prayer in five languages. I listened intently to the words in English and found the softness and the liquid quality of the slightly Italian pronunciation pleasing, almost musical.

When the prayers were finished, he descended and walked among the delegation to the front and right of him. It wasn’t until later that I learned the special blessings were for the pilgrims from Ireland.

Then, to the tune of the famous song - Christ wins, He rules, He reigns (in Latin) - he passed slowly around once more on his way out among the endless sea of upturned faces ahead.

(Note: This article was printed in the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, May 7, 1950, Section D.)

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