‘Ask the Pope to say a prayer for us.’ So went the Viber message I received earlier this evening from a Hungarian friend of mine (a Leinster supporter) who was chomping at the bit while watching the lads attempt to nail the Six Nations. She was sitting in a bar in Budapest. I was on the streets of Naples. She was watching Paul O’Connell. I was watching the Pope. I asked. He obliged. The rest is history.
We’d arrived in Naples anxious to find a pub to watch the match ourselves. I enquired at the information desk at the airport as to where might we go to watch the rugby today.
Que? What rugby? There is no rugby in Naples. Just football.
A sharp reminder of provincial Italy at its best. I told the duo on the desk that Italy was playing, too. But to no avail. So we tossed caution to the wind and got a taxi, willing to pay ten times the bus fare to get into the city as soon as possible.
En route we encountered a problem. The city was closed. The Pope was here visiting for the day. Security was heightened, as last year, apparently, he had excommunicated some Mafia heads. And Naples is a serious Mafia city. I didn’t know that…
But then, this morning, when I was leaving for the airport, I ran into my neighbour. He asked (in Hungarian) where I was going. I said France.
Lovely, says he. Paris?
No, Naples, says I.
That’s in Italy, Mary, says he.
I knew that… I did.
Any, back to the Pope. We had to detour. And detour. And then the detours ran out of detours and we had to walk. Fortunately for us, our hotel was in same direction as the route the popemobile was taking. The streets were lined with people waving €1 flags. Toddlers and teens. Three, four generations, all waiting patiently for a glimpse of the man. They might have been waiting for hours. We waited some 15 minutes. Just to see. And we saw. Himself. In all his glory.
It was all over in a flash. He had passed by, to the cheers of an adoring crowd, when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen him at all. I’d been too busy trying to get a photo. Other than a vague notion that he was wearing white, I couldn’t have told you what he looked like. I had no feel for him. I’d missed the essence. And I was so annoyed with myself.
The crowd, en masse, turned to their phones to see if they, too, had managed to capture him in photo or on video. Some were delighted; others not so impressed. Some older people who had come to see the man rather than capture the moment had smiles on their faces and some looked a tad moved. It was then that I remembered a Venetian travel writer saying that to see Venice you need to leave your camera at home. He had a point. I’d missed him. And I might never get to see him again.
As the popemobile turned the corner, we continued our climb to the hotel, following in its wake. But the crowds weren’t moving. We stopped to ask why. He was going to a church at the top of the hill and would be back this way again, in 20 minutes. We walked on and happened upon the very church he was in. This was my second chance.
This time, when he came out of the church and got into this popemobile, I looked through the maze of extended arms brandishing iPhones and camera and looked at the man. As he passed by, I saw him – the head of the church to which I belong – and a man who is doing so much to return that church to the people. Today he visited Poggio Reale – a prison that holds nearly twice the number of people it was built to hold. Of the 2500 inmates, 90 got to have lunch with him – including transexuals, homosexuals, and those with AIDS. I bet that’s something not many of them ever imagined doing. [I wonder how they were chosen? Was it a lottery?] I bet they’re grateful for the change of pace that this particular Saturday brought with it.
This week, I’m grateful, too. For the unexpected. For those unplanned moments. For those unanticipated meetings. And for the potential they can hold. I saw Pope John Paul II back in 1970s Ireland but I was miles away from him. Today, I stood within 15 feet of Pope Francis. That day had been planned and anticipated for months. Today was a complete surprise. I wonder if there’s a lesson for me there.