November 27, 2012

Vatican Visit and Some Cultural Learnings

The other morning I got a phone call, which was a rare enough thing in itself. The caller invited me to come see him in the Vatican. How exciting, I thought, and I put myself together as soon as I could and headed out to the bus stop.

Once I was on the second bus, however, I started to have one of those anxious, 'who will roll away the stone' kind of moments. In my various visits to the neighborhood, I had many times seen the good Vatican gendarmes shooing people away from the gates and entrances, or blowing whistles at those careless enough to step beyond where they were permitted to be. It happened to me myself recently; thinking that I would use the restroom next to the post office on the right side of St. Peter's Square (ad orientem), but not realizing that whole area was closed for some reason or other, I got the shooing gesture and the, Prego, Padre, tutto chiuso. So how was I supposed to get into the Vatican to get to this appointment?

I got down there too early. So I said my rosary, pacing up and down inside the south colonnade. I think my picture was taken a few times. I explained to some Dutch visitors the nature of consistories. I listened to the sounds of creche construction. When the time came, I approached one of the gates.

This leads me to the first of two cultural reflections in this post. I have learned that the best way to approach authorities or officials here is to self-present in a supplicating, deferential, and self-deprecating manner. If, as an American, you feel like you're at the point at which you fear to be thought obsequious and insincere (the reader can insert other terms more vulgar and perhaps more fitting), then you've got it. You must suppress the American idea that the most important thing is to present, as quickly and as clearly as possible, exactly what you need so that the person may deal with you efficiently and be on to the next thing. On the contrary, the most important thing is how you express your recognition of the gloriousness of the post occupied in this life by the official before you. Whether this glorious post happens to be Cardinal of the Roman Church or ticket lady at the train station, it makes no difference. The same principle obtains.

So I approached the gendarme at the gate. Forgive me, Sir, for taking your time, but I don't know how this works. So-and-so invited me to come here and meet him at place such-and-such. Could you help me know what to do? That did the trick. Why, yes, Father, it works like this: we will call so-and-so right away. Once they had done this, they gave me some directions to the place where I was to go, and released me into the streets of the Vatican. I have to say that it was a bit of a thrill, setting foot in the Vatican for the first time. (I mean apart from St. Peter's, the Museums, and the Post Office.)

Secrets of the Vatican: the Gas Station

My visit included a couple of pilgrimages inside St. Peter's, such as my first visit to the altar of Pope Blessed John Paul II since he's been upstairs. It was my first time in St. Peter's since the early morning in 2007 when I went to Mass in Polish on the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe. It struck me that St. Peter's was one of the very  few Catholic churches I had visited before becoming a catechumen. "Why not start at the top?" offered my host.

This brings me to my second cultural reflection. One of the places I got to visit on my trip into the Vatican was the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the 'conclave hotel' built by John Paul II. Now I remember back around the time of the last conclave there was some noise about this place in the press, somebody saying that it was scandalously opulent and someone else saying no, it's simple and monastic, or something like that. They can't both be true, so what gives? In reflecting on this, I have come to realize a cultural difference regarding the nature of luxury.

We Americans tend to think that costliness brings with it comfort. When you go to the house of a well-to-do friend, you expect to enjoy the classy drink you are offered while you sit on a comfy couch, or at least something like that. You get what I mean. But in Italy, you see, or at least in the world of the Roman Church and her affiliate institutions, these things don't automatically go together as we Americans presume they should. It is not at all strange here to enter a room with a shiny marble floor, adorned by luxurious curtains and works of art in classic style, and find there for sitting the sort of small, hard, straight-backed chair that brings to mind something from your elementary school. This is how, perhaps, a place in the Vatican could seem to us both fancy and monastic at the same time.

1 comment:

Louis M said...

Awesome story, Father