Friday, July 28, 2006

MEMOIR: My audience with the Pope

For a decade during the 1950s and early 1960s, I worked as a Pentagon correspondent for Business Week magazine. One of the perks of the job was to be invited frequently to tour U.S. military bases in the U.S. and abroad. This was the era of the cold war. The presumed purpose of the junkets was to publicize how well prepared the U.S. and its NATO allies were if the cold war ever turned into a shooting war against the Soviet bloc.

One of the most interesting of my trips was a 23-day visit, starting on May 29, 1958, to military bases in France, Belgium, Norway, Denmark, West Germany, Turkey, and Italy. There were about a dozen American journalists on the tour, including Newsweek's Leon Volkov, about whom I wrote on an earlier blog posting. We were accompanied by an almost equal number of Defense Dept. officials and our personal aircraft's crew members.

Our military tour leaders managed to find time for us to squeeze in a day at the Brussel World's Fair. And on June 12, during a free day in Rome, the press attache at the local U.S. Embassy arranged for us to have a private audience with Pope Pius XII. (If you could call a Papal audience "private" with about 20 participants.)

An American monsignor acted as our personal Vatican guide. He led us through the Vatican's vast libraries, offices, and even into the Pope's personal quarters. As we walked through the Vatican complex, he lectured us on the sights and introduced us to various Papal functionaries.

Finally, in the afternoon we were invited into the pontiff's private office. Pope Pius XII was seated on a throne-like chair surrounded by several aides. He was then 82 years old and had been the Pope for 19 years. As I recall, he was a tall, gaunt man who was obviously not in good health.

Before being introduced to the Pope, the American monsignor guide informed our group about the traditional protocol on being introduced to the pontiff. Whether or not we were Roman Catholics, he said, visitors were normally asked to genuflect before the Pope and to kiss his ring.

We lined up to approach the Pope on his chair. A handful of those in our group were Catholics, and they agreeably followed the monsignor's instructions. But when the first Protestant walked up to the Pope, he hesitated for a moment. He bowed down as if to genuflect and slipped to the floor, breaking his fall with his hand. It was an embarrassing moment.

I was the next in line. As a non-Catholic, I felt uncomfortable about genuflecting and kissing the Pope's ring. I decided to simply shake his hand. He smiled at me and did not appear offended. All the other non-Catholics followed my example.

When we had all been introduced to the Pope, he stood up from his chair. The monsignor handed him a paper, and the Pope began to address us. Strangely, he started talking in German. He had apparently been misinformed about our group's nationality. The monsignor hastily whispered to him that we were Americans and handed him another paper.

The Pope then started to speak in an Italian-accented English. His heavy accent reminded me of Henry Armetta, a short, stocky character actor who was then a popular figure as an Italian immigrant in Hollywood movies requiring such a role.

The Pope talked about the responsibilities of a free press. His remarks were pertinent and articulate and impressed the journalists with his sophisticated understanding of media operations.

After his brief address, he sat down, and we again lined up to approach his chair. He handed each of us a medallion bearing his image and blessed it. The Papal audience was thus formally closed. A picture of the Pope and our group appeared the following day on the front page of L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's daily newspaper.

By that time our group was flying to our next destination, Wiesbaden, West Germany to visit the U.S. Air Force's European headquarters.

When I returned home to Silver Spring, Md. I gave my Papal medallion to my next door neighbor, who was a devout Catholic. He was deeply appreciative of my gift. But I was surprised when he told me several days later that he had presented the medallion to the mother superior of the local St. Camillus parochial school. Probably it meant even more to her than to him.

Four months after my audience with the pontiff, Pope Pius XII died. I was pleased to have had the opportunity to meet such an historic figure before his death.


Anonymous Terri said...

Having been raised Catholic and attending parochial school for 8 years, I enjoyed reading this. (even though as an adult I claim no religious affiliation)
Pope Pius XII was the Pope I grew up with though. I appreciated your hesitation to bow and kiss the ring. I'd say you were a trendsetter for that group....and I applaude that.
Thanks for sharing a great story, Mort.

Saturday, July 29, 2006 8:26:00 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Oooh Terri is showing her age. The first Pope I remember as a child was Paul. Pius XII was a bit before my time ;-)

It was nice of you to hand across the medal to someone who would value it. It fits into my theory that you're basically a nice guy Mort.

When I was in Tunisia, somebody gave me a Hand of Fatima (daughter of The Prophet)trinket which I handed over to a Muslim friend of mine. He liked it more than I did.

Saturday, July 29, 2006 2:14:00 PM  
Blogger Chancy said...

Thanks for this interesting recollection Mort. You have lived quite an interesting life.

Saturday, July 29, 2006 2:36:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wonderful story.You gave away the medallion------.I had a similar exprience when i gave a close friend a present i bought for him in Paris----only to learn that he gave it away to his x wife.I was very offended,never gave him anything more.At the very least they check with us.

Monday, July 31, 2006 9:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Terri said...

Came back to see if you had a new post up yet and happened to see Peggy's comment and I chuckled....."showing my age?" Well, I guess so, if turning 60 in March is showing my

Tuesday, August 01, 2006 3:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Roy sannella said...

My first time on blog. I am also 81 yrs old.I had an audieance with Pope Pius XII through my friend Frank Sinatra who donated $10,000
on my behalf. That story and a hundred others are in my book recently published named My nine Lives. Please check my website MyNinelives
Roy sannella

Wednesday, August 09, 2006 6:47:00 PM  

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