The pope thought my Italian sucked
I studied in Rome in 1993. My roommate was a seminarian who made it his job to get to know people at the Vatican. He ended up arranging a papal audience for us — nothing private, just part of the larger scheduled audiences — and he was able to situate himself (and me) right on the aisle down which the pope would stroll. Sure enough, il papa came right over to me and asked me where I was from. I responded in Italian (since he asked in Italian) that I was from Chicago. Smirking, he responded in English — presumably because my Italian was so atrocious — that he had visited Chicago many times. Then the stream of outstretched hands pulled him further along the aisle and my encounter with Pope John Paul II was over.
When I heard that the pope had died on Saturday I was preparing to attend the wedding of a friend. The radio broadcast I was listening to mentioned that a special service in Chicago would be held by Cardinal George at Holy Name Cathedral, the main Catholic church in the city, at 5:15pm. The wedding I was going to was scheduled for 4pm at that same church.
What a spectacle. Even as the wedding started a steady flow of mourners was filtering into the church, somewhat befuddled that a celebration was taking place therein. Once they figured out that the wedding would end soon enough they seemed not to notice it at all, filling in every open seat all the way to the front of the church. Meanwhile row after row of news cameras were sprouting up along the aisles. Seemingly entire orders of nuns marched solemnly in and took up seats very close to the bride’s and groom’s parents. A lone bridal party usher — normally a role whose most difficult task is figuring out which side of the church arriving guests should sit on — literally had to body-block churchgoers from entering the church down the center aisle. It was all somewhat surreal.
By the time the newlyweds turned around to face their family and friends, the vast cathedral was packed to overflow capacity — something I’d wager only the most regal weddings even come close to achieving in that space. The bride was completely dumbstruck at the sight. (And I bet the groom was thinking “I hope they don’t think they’re all coming to the reception.”) I have to admit that the bishop presiding over the wedding did a good job steering clear of what could have been a maudlin matrimonial ceremony, choosing rather to focus on the bride and groom almost exclusively. But the swell of silent, mourning Catholics into a space of such joy created one of the most unintentionally bizarre atmospheres I think I have ever witnessed. I’m having trouble dreaming up anything more ridiculous than the sight of weeping nuns pushed aside by a reporter from People Magazine (yes, People — huh?) trying to intercept the departing bride for an interview.