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.