A once in a lifetime opportunity, albeit very brief
One day I will never forget in all my years is March 11, 2009. I became one of the privileged few to meet Pope Benedict in person. A few years back, meeting the Pope in person took months of effort and planning. My husband and I after ten years of civil marriage decided to renew our vows with the Church, participating in a mass and Sposi Novelli (newlywed) blessing.
It had started with our Parish, St. James in Carmel, New York. Our priest had helped us set the wheels in motion for this opportunity. Although we had been married in 1999 in a civil ceremony, we were requested to renew our vows in the church. For months, we had been planning a trip to Italy to celebrate our anniversary, and a trip to the Vatican to receive the blessing of the Pope just felt like the appropriate thing to do.
My husband was a former seminarian and had lived in Italy for a year while in college. He was also fluent in Italian, as that was his major. This made it very simple for him to facilitate the trip. He had been in touch with the Pontifical North American College in Rome via telephone to secure our audience with Pope Benedict. In the meantime, we had also gone to Pre-Cana. When the time came, one of the four suitcases we brought with us to Italy contained my wedding dress, as one of the requirements for Sposi Novelli is wedding attire.
The day before, March 10th was my 37th birthday. It was by far one of my best birthdays ever, since I was spending the day in Rome. My husband and I had to meet our contact at the Pontifical College in person to collect our tickets. The college was within walking distance of the Spanish Steps, so after our appointment, we could relax and have delicious gelato at the famous landmark. Later that evening, we celebrated my birthday properly with dinner and wine at a cute little restaurant in the city.
The day of our audience started with almost as much excitement as any monumental day would be. We awoke at 5 am to get dressed and get to the security gate at the Vatican. We knew there would be a huge crowd for the weekly Papal audience and wanted to get there early. My zipper on my wedding dress was stuck and would not get more than halfway up my back. For several minutes we frantically tried to resolve this, but to no avail. Since we were running late, we decided to catch a taxi to the Vatican and deal with the zipper later. When we were out on the street to hail a taxi, I noticed a middle-aged nun walking towards us on the sidewalk. She agreed to zip me up and did it with such efficiency it must have been a miracle.
After our arrival at the Vatican gate, and passing through the metal detector, we were escorted to the special seating for Sposi Novelli. We were surrounded by Swiss guards, various members of the clergy, plus Vatican security. We also were privileged to meet other recently married Catholics from the United States from various states including Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Arizona.
During our wait for Pope Benedict to arrive, we shared recent travel stories with our fellow Sposi Novelli from America, and felt a certain bond with them. During the wait, I had to use the restroom and one of the most unexpected and memorable things happened on my way back to my seat: a Swiss guard in full dress uniform complete with a cape, gave me (a bride) a full on military salute.
I had a brief conversation with an elderly Italian woman seated in our section. Although my Italian was limited to only one year of study, I could comprehend and answer her questions. The woman complimented me on my bridal attire and I graciously thanked her. I was then surprised when this woman asked me if I was from Bologna. I was a bit surprised and flattered due to my blonde hair and fair complexion that this woman considered me Italian. I responded to her that I was from America, specifically New York. She nodded and looked a little surprised that an American was communicating with her in her native language.
After approximately two hours, Pope Benedict arrived in his pope mobile. My husband and I managed to get ourselves into the front row of seats, and helped another couple climb over the chairs to get up front as well. Benedict then conducted his Wednesday Papal audience. We had a special VIP view of the Pontiff from our seats, mainly a stone’s throw away (see pic below). After the mass, Pope Benedict came over to a table that contained dozens of items ranging from paintings of the Pope’s likeness to personal items from people all over the world to receive his blessing.
Finally, the chance came for us to meet. Benedict started down the line of Sposi Novelli flanked by cardinals, security guards and photographers. The excitement I felt was feverish. I rapidly took photos of Benedict approaching us until one of his security guards politely asked me to put the camera away. He assured me that a photo with the Pontiff would be made available to us. When it was our turn greet the Pontiff, the waiting, fantasy and anticipation of the previous months culminated to this very moment.
Benedict approached us. My husband and I shook his hand and kissed his ring. One thing I remember vividly, is that the Pontiff had extremely soft hands. While the Vatican photographer captured our moment for posterity, I thought of something meaningful to say. I looked him in the eyes and declared, “I am a German American and I am honored to meet you.” Benedict nodded his head several times, and gave me a huge toothy grin, and moved on. Then, one of the Pope’s security guards handed me a Papal Rosary to commemorate the occasion. I still have and cherish that rosary to this day. It has become my comfort and good luck charm. To this day, that rosary travels with me everywhere I go, especially when I fly.
After the mass and blessing was over, we began to file out. Just outside the Vatican gate, I was showered with well wishes from people around us. School children shouted, “Buona fortuna bella spousa” (good luck beautiful bride). That moment I felt a little like a rock star.
My husband and I decided to go back to our bed and breakfast to get changed. I was tingling with excitement at what had just happened and the experience left me exhausted. Instead of hailing a cab, we decided to take the bus. I recall as I boarded the bus and sat down, only one or two people on that full bus did a double take when they saw me in full bridal attire. I suppose brides must take public transportation often in Rome?
It is now eight years since my personal meeting with Pope Benedict. My meeting and personal interaction with the Pontiff lasted maybe thirty seconds, but it is a point in time I will never forget. Benedict seemed quiet, elusive and a little standoffish, and different than his successor Pope Francis.
The Sposi Novelli audience with Pope Benedict remains as one of the most poignant and memorable experiences of my life.