In 1979, I spent a semester at the University of Dallas, Rome campus. A few days after we arrived, five or six of us decided to wander around the city to get our bearings. We wound up in St. Peter’s Square where we saw two parallel lines of barricades running down its center about twenty feet apart. When we asked why, we were told that when John Paul II returned that night from Mexico, he would be driven through the square in an open car. We hustled over to a spot right next to a barricade and began the long vigil.
As we waited, I thumbed through a little book of helpful foreign phrases for English speaking travelers. I sat up straight when I realized that some of them were in Polish. What better way to stand out to a Pole in a crowd of screaming Italians than to yell something in Polish? We carefully studied the book to choose just the right phrase and practiced it together all afternoon.
The huge crowd became electric when the Pope finally arrived. As his car drove slowly by, our little group shouted out in Polish, in unison, “Where are you going with our luggage?” His head snapped around, and for a second his eyes flared with the burning indignation that would eventually smelt the Iron Curtain. But, when he saw it was a group of smiling, dumb – probably American – students desperately trying to attract his attention, he laughed and gave us a blessing .
A couple of months later, we were working our way back to campus from the train station after a 5 day trip through several countries. We were too broke even for youth hostels, but we did have Eurail passes, so we had slept on the trains. We were tired, hungry, and didn’t smell great.
As we walked behind the Vatican, we saw several people obviously waiting for something. They told us the Pope was coming back from a dinner in town, and that this road led to his private drive. Just then, a large car drove up and stopped right in front of us. John Paul II popped out of the sunroof and everyone began taking pictures and wishing him a good night.
I threw my suitcase down, knelt beside it, and began frantically searching for my camera. I couldn’t find it. In desperation, I dumped its contents onto the street, but it was no use; it wasn’t in there. Then I noticed that all the cameras had stopped flashing, and that our little group had fallen into an awkward silence.
I looked up and saw that the Pope was patiently waiting for me to find my camera. As I knelt in the gutter, surrounded by my dirty socks and underwear, I threw my arms out wide and shrugged my shoulders as if to say, “That’s life.” And then the Pope, the Occupant of the Throne of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ threw out his arms wide and shrugged his shoulders as if to agree, “Yeah, that’s life.” He laughed, threw me a quick blessing, got back in the car and was driven away.
I miss him.