As I gazed upward at the red granite obelisk, someone tapped me on the shoulder from behind. A dark skinned man in his early twenties asked me in broken English, “Would you take my picture?” He wasn’t Italian and I couldn’t discern where he was from.
“Sure.” I answered. He posed in front of the obelisk which dominates St Peters piazza and I snapped a couple shots. Then he offered to take one of me with my camera, which he did. After taking my picture I asked him where he was
from. His name was Hamad and he was from Turkey, going to college in Amsterdam. He took a few days to see Italy before starting his next semester.
“Why did you come to Rome, why The Vatican?” I asked my new friend.
“I grew up as a Muslim hearing how this place was very holy to the Christians and I wanted to see for myself.” he answered.
“And…?” I questioned.
“And, there is no doubt for me now…I can feel God in this place.”
That caught me by surprise. Here a young Muslim could feel what I felt about St Peters Basilica. I met people of all races and all religions. Hindu’s, Muslim’s, Jewish people, all captivated by the Vatican experience. One of the capitol’s of Catholicism and Christianity, was a destination spot for all religions. It was a warm feeling.
This was my first trip to Rome, my first trip across the pond at all. (Always wanted to say that but now it sounds cheesy). I was standing in St. Peter’s Square next to the giant obelisk which had been transferred out of Egypt to various Roman cities over 2000 years ago and was finally placed at the center of this amazing piazza in 1586.
As a Catholic this trip was special, but I had always wanted to visit Italy, even before becoming a Catholic many years ago.
Throughout all of Rome, but especially here in St. Peters and the Vatican, you see many priest and many nuns. Some living and working here and others on pilgrimage from various spots around the world. Earlier that morning I saw three nuns, who walked around the square visibly enthralled. I wondered where they might be from, what it meant for them to be here in such a spiritual and spectacular place.
One of them spotted me watching them and eyed me curiously and with a little suspicion, the same way folks back home in Missouri do. I snapped her picture and I think I captured the wariness on her face in the photo. As I looked up from my camera I smiled big as I could and either my goofy ‘thumbs up’ sign or my giant teeth made her smile and wave to me.
A little later I spied three more nuns just as they were entering the piazza and the excitement and wonder on their face could not be disguised. It seemed obvious it was their first time as it was mine and quite a few others. The way they pointed and smiles and laughed was pure joy at its finest.
I walked around the piazza for a couple of hours waiting for the jet lag to kick in; it never did. I had arrived in Rome early that morning and been up for over thirty hours, but I wasn‘t a bit tired. I walked back through the crowds toward the hotel, a nice breeze thankfully blowing in the low 80 degree heat.
The following morning I had an appointment to visit a pen pal of mine inside the Vatican. Not the public area of St. Peters Square or church or museum, but inside the private, heavily guarded and fortified walls of the Apostolic Palace.
This rare opportunity began several years ago as I emailed a contact address online for information and it reached a monsignor at one of the many Vatican offices. I found out the Monsignor works and lives in Vatican City and we became email pen pals.
When I found out I was coming to Rome I asked if I could take him to dinner and meet him in person. While he said he was too busy with work to get away he invited me to come to the Vatican to meet him, inside the private area of the Apostolic Palace where his office is.
Naturally I jumped at the opportunity.
He set up a time to meet me on Tuesday morning at 10:00 AM. He instructed me to go through the Santa Anna gate and check in with the security office where he would leave my name.
Of course security is extremely tight at the Vatican and I had to show passport and driver’s license, which were kept at the security check point until I returned. The guard made calls and investigated on his computer for about fifteen minutes.
I was issued a special badges and a note to show all the various soldiers of the Swiss Guard I would meet along the way to get to the Monsignor.
The security guard walked me outside and pointed down the road through an ancient archway where I could see a gigantic fountain about a block away. He didn’t speak much English but he said, “Go through the arch and find a guard in the colorful uniform. Show him this note and he will give you directions to the Monsignor. With that he gave me a little nudge and I was off on an adventure.
I was about 45 minutes early so before going through the archway I wondered down some short side streets and admired many different fountains and gardens.
I took a number of pictures and many of the fountains had a plaque above them telling that it was created for or under the pontificate of certain popes. There were plaques on every wall, stone fence or fountain you could see. I guess they new these would last and we would want to know about them. I wish I knew Italian and Latin as that would have helped immensely in deciphering the plaques.
The journey on foot, with no escort, only the official note that stated I had permission to be wandering around on the premises, was an incredible dream like experience in itself.
There were virtually no other people in these areas and I felt like a very special guest.
As I made it through the main archway into a large piazza, displaying a bowl like fountain which was dry, I found one of the Swiss Guards. Many still wear the bright multicolored uniform that Michelangelo himself created and designed. While many others look and act like an American secret service detail.
I showed the friendly guard my note and he scratched his chin trying to think where the Monsignor’s office was. Finally he more or less gave up and pointed to another archway leading into an old building. He told me to just go into that building and up several flights of stairs until you find an elevator, then the man in the elevator will know. And I was off again.
As I entered the building the first thing I noticed was a very wide, white marble staircase. It seemed, fifteen or twenty feet wide. I assumed these stairs were hundreds of years old as the marble was worn down and slightly concave from so many years of traffic. They probably had to be wide to accommodate large furniture and similar objects.
I imagined how many popes had climbed theses stairs and though I was alone I felt the presence of the many saints that must have also walked where I now walked. Hamad was right, you can feel God in this place.
As to exactly where I was I had no idea at the time. In researching it later I was at the back of St Peters square and at the opposite end of where the papal apartment is. This apartment is where the pope gives his Sunday noon time addresses and recites The Angelus.
On every landing the stairs turned and went back the opposite direction. And every landing had an incredible statue, all of them obviously old and on display for just me. It was surreal. None of these art treasures had plaques or were labeled by the artist name. It didn’t matter who created them but the soft white realistic faces looked as if they may speak at any moment.
After about four or five floors I went through a door way which led to a very fancy ornately decorated hallway. There was an elevator and I pushed the door button and momentarily the doors open and sure enough there was an elevator operator in a suit. I showed him my note and in my best Italian I said, “Non parlo Italiano.” It was ironically the only Italian I knew. I speak no Italian.
This gentleman nodded and seemed confident. We went up another four floors or more. It was the top floor the elevator went to. As it opened I followed him down another beautiful wide hallway.
The ceilings were arched and every inch was a beautiful three dimensional scene. Sculpted and painted and breathtaking. The floors had long beautiful rugs covering the marble in the center of the hall.
We went to an office where the elevator man showed my note to another man behind a desk. He arose and shook my hand and spoke swiftly in his native tongue with a smile. I repeated my one line of Italian and to my dismay his smile disappeared.
He led me to yet another beautiful hallway, also with tall arched ceilings but it wasn’t three dimensional. He told me to wait here. When he left I examined what looked like beautiful wallpaper. Every inch was decorated with tiny scenes and on the ceiling larger, beautiful scenes.
As I rubbed my hand across the wall paper I realized it was not wall paper but a hand painted fresco. Every inch in this hallway from top to bottom. It was one big beautiful painting.
All long one wall were large floor to ceiling double windows. They were covered by gray sheer curtains. “I wonder if there’s a view worth a picture?”, I thought to my self. I opened wide the curtains and there was the most stunning view I could have imagined.
I looked out the large windows to discover I was high above St. Peter’s Square, close to the right corner of St. Peter’s Church, looking down on the tiny tourist below. I had an eye level view with the great clock in the corner and below to my right a private large outdoor balcony where I imagined His Holiness may sometimes sit and relax in peaceful prayer.
The beautiful life size statues of the twelve apostles proudly sat atop the front façade of St Peters, watching and protecting the tourist below. I wanted to lean out and see how far my reach was from them, but thought better of the idea. The window was almost level with the great dome of St. Peters and it took your breath away. I had traveled and climbed so much I hadn’t known where I was but I was right where I wanted to be. Right where God wanted me to be on this day, at this time. I again, like my friend Hamad, felt God in this place.
I snapped a few pictures and then re-examined the fresco on the walls and ceiling.
Soon the Monsignor arrived smiling and warmly shaking my hand. I gave him a poem I had written and copies of my music CD’s, along with a contribution for Peter’s Penance, the Popes personal charity division.
I asked him about the magnificent painted walls and ceiling and he told me they were painted by the great renaissance master, Raphael in the early 1500's. I of course felt bad, but didn’t mentioned I innocently rubbed my filthy Missouri hands all over this masterpiece. YIKES!
After a few minutes conversation he took me to another, larger magnificent hallway and showed me a giant beautiful map of the world painted in 1601. It had to be twenty feet tall and was painted in the corner of a room. Although it didn’t exactly look like our maps today, considering the technology it was impressive. It was spectacular and such a rare, once in a life time opportunity, it left me in awe.
Eventually I left the Monsignor and took my time wandering back to the security office. I can’t adequately describe what I had just experienced and will probably never experience again. To be in a place so noisy, public and open and then minutes later to enjoy the quietness, privacy and sacred reverence of the hidden ancient Vatican is almost a sensory overload.
Over the next few days I would explore the Sistine Chapel, The Pieta by Michelangelo and also The Excavation, the site under St Peters where you can see the bones of St Peter, the apostle and first pope. Witnessing these masterpieces will bring you to tears. The Vatican has many treasures open to the public but I will always remember my private visit to a place few people ever visit. Inside the Apostolic Palace.