TERRE HAUTE —
I saw a pope once.
Read quickly, that sentence sounds too casual, almost as if we’d crossed paths at Home Depot.
Say it slowly, though, and the significance comes through.
Granted, my view came at a distance. I stood on Bernini’s colonnade overlooking St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City, peering between a few of the 140 statues of the saints on Oct. 15, 2006. That Sunday morning, under a burst of unexpected sunshine, Pope Benedict XVI walked in a procession toward St. Peter’s Basilica and canonized Mother Theodore Guerin — a resilient pioneer who founded the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods — as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, along with three others. The impact of the moment became clear, even from that lofty perch.
The Vatican reserved that stretch of the colonnade for journalists. Standing nearby was a young woman from a Latin American newspaper, snapping photos and jotting notes. As Pope Benedict affirmed sainthood on Rafael Guizar Valencia, an early 20th-century bishop from Mexico, tears streamed down that reporter’s cheeks as she watched through her camera’s lens.
That sight and plenty of others revealed the profound spot this place near the Mediterranean Sea holds in hearts worldwide.
Memories of that trip seven years ago rushed back Wednesday as news and images from Rome flowed onto the wire services, unveiling new Pope Francis to 1.2 billion Catholics and the world. In just Day 2 of their conclave in the Sistine Chapel, the 115 cardinals elected humble Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the successor to Benedict, who surprised everybody last month by becoming the first pope in centuries to resign.
A rain-soaked crowd of thousands cheered as the new pope spoke from the basilica balcony.
Interesting things happen indeed in that center of religious faith, majestic structures and masterful artistry.
That assignment for this newspaper years ago was an eye-opener as my wife and I made our first visit to Rome. We weren’t alone. More than 500 other local folks trekked to Italy for the canonization, perhaps the largest assembly of Hauteans in Rome in the history of our fair city.
For my wife and me, the lessons began immediately, beginning with the taxi ride to our hotel. The cabbie — a thirtysomething guy with a shaved head, T-shirt and jeans — drove at breakneck speed through the busy, narrow streets. As we rounded a wide bend, the Vatican walls came into view. Halfway through the turn, at a pace usually reserved for get-away cars, the driver let go of the steering wheel to make the sign of the cross over his chest.
Once the blood flow to my brain resumed, I realized he wasn’t trying to terrify the Americans in his back seat. This gesture was something this man did every time he drove by that place, Vatican City — the heart of a faith led by a line of 266 pontiffs, from Peter to the new Pope Francis.
Other less heart-stopping introductions to European culture followed.
Like the bustling, rich-smelling coffeeshop we hit. I ambled up to the bar and ordered a “coffee” for me and a “latte” for my wife. The barista came back with a tall glass of foamy white milk and a tiny cup of espresso. He and I talked, briefly, as he explained the menu and I felt more Hoosier than ever.
Traffic transcended Indiana norms, too. Some intersections have no stop signs or stoplights. Turn signals and brakes seem optional. Cars and trucks are a fraction of the size of U.S. vehicles. (There wasn’t a Dodge Ram or a Ford F-150 in sight, which was weird.) Motorists park anywhere along the streets, sideways, angled, parallel, even double parked. Pedestrians take a few steps into the fray, and then either break into a sprint or rush back.
Many shops stay open from 9 to 9, but close for three hours in the afternoons. Clothing stores may appear to offer only a few items on display, but keep different sizes and colors in a back room. Cafés serve fish whole, head and tail intact. Markets feature tons of fresh fruits and veggies, as well as the occasional hog head. Pizzas taste amazing, and it’s almost impossible to find a bad wine.
Most of all, the people seemed passionate about the city, their way of life, and the reasons so many folks from foreign lands come there to visit.
I’m not sure if I’ll see Pope Francis or another pontiff in person again. Either way, the memories surrounding my one papal sighting will linger a lifetime.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.