Thursday, October 6, 2011

Day Two - the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel

The altar which entombs the remains of Blessed John Paul II

We arrived at the Vatican around 7:30am so that we could all get through the very thorough security check.  I was very impressed with the guards for their professionalism and efficiency and for the obviously serious way in which they went about their responsibilities.

We waited outside the barriers that had been set up at Blessed John Paul II's altar as another group was having Mass there.  People who were not part of our group joined the line and I would soon see why they they were told they would have to find another chapel for Mass.  Seating was very limited and as it was, several of us had to stand.  Mass was celebrated by the two priests on our journey ad orientem and at the conclusion, we given approximately 5 minutes to look around with the promise that we would be back that afternoon.  Then we were whisked out and across St. Peter's Square to series of shops selling religious articles.  We were told we had about 20 minutes until our special tour guide would arrive.

Originally, we were scheduled for the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, in the morning and the major basilicas in the afternoon, but for the convenience of the guide, the schedule had been reversed.  Only later would we discover how unfortunate that change was.  The gift shop contained some of the most beautiful images of the Virgin Mary in both plaster and wood.  I made a mental note of an image of the Immaculate Conception that I simply could not forget.

Our guide was fluent in Italian, German and English and she held up a little metal rod with an orange scarf tied to the top.  We were instructed to follow this scarf wherever it went when we visited the basilicas so as not to get lost.  She gave us each a radio and headset so that when we entered the sacred spaces, she would not have to speak loudly in order for us to hear her.

St. Paul Outside the Walls was our first stop.  Below is a photo of the tomb where Paul's remains were found as well as one of the chains thought to have bound him.
The remains of St. Paul's tomb and the chains which imprisoned him.

Next, we were to have visited the Church of St. John Lateran, but because of a meeting being held there among the cardinals, the basilica was closed.  Instead, we visited the Lateran Palace, which houses the steps that St. Helena brought back from the Holy Land after envisioning them as the steps Christ climbed to his sentencing by Pontius Pilate.  The faithful climb the steps on their knees, praying to an image of the Crucifixion at the very top of the steps.  We were told we would not have time for anyone to climb the steps and that we were expected outside in 20 minutes.  I found a little chapel inside where I tired to pray the Rosary.

When we boarded the bus we were informed that we could not go to St. Mary Major because of time but instead would be going to the Church of the Holy Cross, or Chiesa Santa Croce.  Inside were relics from the True Cross as well as nails purported to have fastened Christ to the cross and the remains of a thumb said to be a relic of St. Thomas, the doubter.   I had brought Story of a Soul along with me on this trip and I was particularly interested to see that St. Therese had visited this same church when she went to Rome with her father and sister Celine.  Therese mentioned how she managed to sneak her little finger into the reliquary holding the nails so that she could touch a sacred object that was once bathed in the Precious Blood of Christ.  I wished I had read this before visiting so I form a better mental image of this.

As it was now lunch-time, for which even the basilicas close, we headed to a restaurant within walking distance of the Vatican Museum, where lunch awaited us.  It took some getting used to lukewarm water and wine at every meal, not to mention eating a lunch that was more the size of a dinner.  Fortunately for me, I don't eat much in the morning and most of the breakfasts we were served were simple and sparse.  But there would come a time when I would have to draw the line on how much I allowed to be put on my plate at lunch and at dinner as it just did not seem normal to eat like this, even in Italy!

After being stuffed to the gills with lasagna, pork, potatoes, salad and dessert, we headed over to the Vatican Museum.  We made our way through the remains of Roman sculpture and tapestries and as we got closer to the Sistine Chapel, it grew more and more crowded, to the point where we could barely see our guide's scarf and where it became stifling hot and the danger of being trampled to death very real.  It didn't occur to me at the time, but had there been a fire, we would surely have perished.

Later, we were told the reason it was so crowded is because a cruise ship had just let out its passengers at the same time we got there, which is apparently something to be avoided at all costs.  Too late now.  There was only one way in and one way out, so I can tell you that by the time I reached the hallowed chapel, I wanted nothing more than to get through it as quickly as I could so I could breathe again.  I had just enough time to spot the creation image, and the final judgment before departing.   After hearing how people weep when they survey the marvelous ceiling, I felt shamed that the only thing I could  think about about was getting out of there as soon as possible.  It was literally wall to wall people with not a clear place to stand.

As we exited, we were greeted by a shower and while I had an umbrella, I have to say the rain felt very good and timely after what we just endured.   It made me sad to think I had come so far to have to take this for granted, but nothing could have induced me to go back into that chapel short of the Second Coming.

As we made our way to the bus to return to our hotel, J was walking dejectedly with his head down.  When asked what the problem was, he replied that he had wanted to climb the Holy Steps at Lateran Palace on his knees and was upset that he wasn't given the opportunity.  Someone pointed out that he'd been to Rome before and had climbed that on that trip, but it was little consolation.  I was glad for his dejection, if truth be told, because it was one of the rare times when he was silent.

Every time we had to board and exit the bus, J would be waiting to give people a hug.  By the end of the day, I had to inform him that I was not the hugging type and he would have to be satisfied with a simple greeting.

"You'll get used to it," he told me and it was then I informed him that he was not to put his hands on me again. I noticed that these hugs were not distributed to everyone but only to select women.  I also noticed that at meal time, J never sought out the company of the older women (older than me, that is) who were traveling alone.  He seemed drawn to me and the woman with whom I had to share a room the first night.

After being told emphatically to please not hug me again, J grabbed my hand and attempted to "dance" with me.  I thought I was going to scream. I had just come through the harrowing experience of nearly being crushed in a crowd and now I had to be accosted by someone with obvious issues.  When I spurned his invitation to "dance", J broke out into a fit of laughter that made chills run down my spine.

As though that wasn't bad enough, he sat with me and my friend at dinner.  I tried to figure out what his "issue" might be and I thought it might be some form of autism, except that eye contact is often a problem for people with Asberger's and J would stare directly into my eyes for what seemed like an eternity.  It seemed to me that he either could not read social cues, or that he took some form of sadistic delight in making women feel uncomfortable with him.  It was hard to tell and I was constantly asking God's forgiveness for the thoughts that crossed my mind and for the way this person repulsed me.

That night, I had my own room, but the hotel staff sent my bags to someone else's room, so I had to track them down before I could go to sleep.  This sort of comedy of errors would continue the entire time we were in Italy.

The next day, we would be off for Genazzano to see the miraculous image of Our Mother of Good Counsel.

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