Notes from my 2 August 1998 meeting with Pope John Paul II.
The invitation for a personal meeting with His Holiness Pope John Paul II scrolled off our fax machine, complete with instructions for protocol for meeting the Pontiff, and we at first thought it was a prank. But it was real: a close friend of the Pope had read my book "The Prophet's Way," and suggested that I be invited to meet His Holiness, who agreed based on his friend's recommendation. Honored, we accepted the invitation and booked a flight to Rome.
Castle Gandolfo is the summer residence of the Pope, and has been since the 18th century. It’s a modest castle with a stunning view at perhaps 4000 feet, on the edge of a lake which is the caldera of an extinct volcano. The castle overlooks the lake, where the water at the surface is cold but at depths of several hundred feet is hot from the volcanic activity which still remains, tens of thousands of years since this volcano blew off its top to form the lake.
Standing in the palace, you can see out over the lake and the rim of the volcano, now covered with trees, with mountains in the distance. The air is pleasant and fresh with the smell of pine and the lake, the sky a deep blue. On the far side of the lake was once one of the main Roman temples to Zeus, destroyed just after Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the 4th century, thus creating the Roman Catholic Church, when then embarked on a 1500-year-long campaign to systematically destroy every non-Christian religious relic they could find, from Rome to Africa to the British Isles to the Mayan and Aztec lands of the Americas. The high-point of the volcanic rim is now an unsightly cowlick of television and microwave antennas.
The air was hot and clear as Louise and I drove the twisting road up the mountainside with Eva, a German tour guide, and Martina, a German/Italian/English translator, provided by our hosts. There’s a small tourist town that’s grown up around Castle Gandolfo, and we arrived at 5pm, two hours early for the 7pm opening of the gates of the castle. Swiss Guards, wearing bring orange and blue pantaloons designed by Michelangelo, stood before the ancient, 30-foot-high brass-covered door to the castle, their lances at arms, and several men with ear-pieces and sharp looks — the Papal equivalent of the Secret Service — milled around the area, their black suits buttoned to conceal the guns they wore in their shoulder holsters.
Louise and I walked through the tourist shops, stopped in an open-air café for a glass of beer, and found a shop that sold Catholic and papal souvenirs, where we were able to purchase a refrigerator magnet with the Pope’s picture on it — a request from one of my best friends, Jerry Schneiderman, at whose apartment in New York we’d stayed before departing for Rome. Having found that, we sat for a half-hour in the Church of St. Thomas, opposite the castle, and watched the preparations for evening mass.
At seven o’clock, the doors to the castle were opened. We passed an inspection by the Swiss Guard, presented our personalized invitations, were scanned for metal with high-tech hand-held detectors by the men in black, and allowed into the courtyard of Castle Gandolfo.
The Hungarian National Orchestra had set up their chairs and music stands in the center of the courtyard, which overall measured about 200 feet by 200 feet. The castle formed a square around it, painted a dark yellow, four floors high. Chairs were placed to the left and right of the orchestra, and Louise and I were directed to chairs with our names on them in the first row on the right side of the courtyard, facing the orchestra. The floor was inlaid with an ancient black basaltic stone, sloping gently to the center and a steel-covered drain to carry off rainwater. Above us in the open-air courtyard was stretched from all four walls a huge canvas sheet, protecting us from the sun, and, presumably, in the event of rain, from the water.
To the left of our seats, about 30 feet away, was an alcove in the wall with a 15-foot-high bronze statue of a man in a toga who looked like a classical Greek god, complete with the typical curly hair, fair features, straight nose, and first-century-BC Greek hairstyle. He held in his left hand, however, two keys (to heaven and hell, it turns out), and in his right hand a book: the inscription below him said SANCTVS PETRVS: Saint Peter. In front of the statue were 7 chairs and a gold-covered throne. There were just 4 chairs and a 30-foot open area between Louise and me and the throne, just to our left, with the orchestra fifty feet to our right and in twenty feet in front of us.
About 200 people altogether came into the seats on either side of the orchestra. Dr. Juhar, who Herr Müller had sent a copy of "The Prophet’s Way" and thus had invited us, and was the organizer of the event, conferred with a Cardinal in his red hat and sash, then came over to those of us seated in the front row on the side near the throne and gave all of us in the front row clip-on hand-written badges to wear. "This means you are to personally meet with His Holiness," she said. "Please wear it at all times, to differentiate you from the other visitors." Louise and I clipped the badges to our formal black clothes, as the security men gave us a particularly intense scrutiny. (The next morning, in the Italian papers, I saw a photo of the security man who stood closest to the Pope: he’d just been elevated to the head of the Swiss Guards that day.)
At 7:30, the huge doors into the castle were closed and locked with a loud thud, shutting out the sounds of the tourists in the street: the Swiss Guard took up their traditional positions, lances crossed.
At 7:45 pm, the orchestra spent a few minutes tuning up. Then, at five to eight, a hush fell over the room. A half-dozen or so of the Secret Service types moved through the room, examining the faces and hands of everybody in every row. The Cardinal and an Archbishop stood with a Swiss Guard and a security man near the entrance to the throne area, just to our left, anxiously looking into an area beyond our vision. The room became silent.
At some unheard cue, everybody in the room stood. We heard a shuffling gait, step-clump, step-clump, from our left, and the Pope shuffled slowly in. The courtyard was so silent I could hear the labored breathing of His Holiness. He had a pronounced dowager’s hump, and it seemed that he was walking with some pain. His skin looked fresh-scrubbed pink, and his forehead was wrinkled as if he were concentrating. Nonetheless, there was a palpable presence that surrounded him, an almost electric power. At this same moment the sun was setting, and the air in the courtyard changed; it seemed as if it had thickened, the sunlight brightened, the yellow walls darkened.
The Cardinal and a Priest held each of his elbows, steering him to his throne. Before he sat, he looked around the room and waved at us in a gesture that went from shoulder to waist, up and down, hand outstretched, with his right hand: a Papal blessing. He made a point of looking all around the room and blessing each one in our small group. Then, when he was seated, a priest reached over and arranged his clothes and his sash, then sat down themselves on either side of him, with the Cardinal, two other priests, and two security men behind him. My first sensation of him was that he was very, very old and frail. Yet there is a power there: the power to say words which could change the world. While Bill Clinton leads 270 million people, the Pope leads over a billion Catholics worldwide. Many would kill or die for him, and historically many have. And we were to sit just 30 to 40 feet from him for an hour or more.
There followed a period of about three minutes of silence. Most of the visitors were watching the Pope, whose head was tilted slightly to his left and down, his eyes thin slits as he looked around the room. I noticed the pace of his breathing and matched it, trying to get as close to synchrony with him as I could, and saw a flicker of his eyes in my direction. I continued to match his breathing and to imitate his posture, wondering if it would give me some insight into his state of mind or being. There was an interesting aura around him: I don’t know if it was a trick of my eyes or what, but it seemed that there was something radiating from him. After a minute or two, I crossed my hands in my lap: he followed, which startled me. I sat that way for a minute longer, still following each of his in and out breaths with mine, and then separated my hands. At that moment, he moved his hands to the arms of his throne and nodded, as if he’d made a decision.
(A friend, Scott Berg, told us the day before we left for Rome, a story of when he and a group of meditators were in a hotel and Ronald Reagan walked by. They were stunned by the "spiritual power" that seemed to emanate from him. They asked their meditation teacher, Swami Muktananda, about this, and he said, "He is not just a man. He carries the mantle of the entire nation, of his people. Millions are praying for him and giving spiritual power to him, and that is probably what you felt more than any spiritual presence of his as a single man." I listened to the story with some skepticism, but when the Pope walked into the room it suddenly made a lot of sense.)
Dr. Juhar, who’d organized this event, walked to a microphone in front of the Pope and made a brief speech in Italian, mentioning about the need to bring Catholics and non-Catholics together, and the value of music in doing this. The Pope smiled and nodded: he’s the first pope in history to suggest that other faiths may have value and that Jews and Protestants are not always condemned to hell, a statement which has drawn fire from many highly-conservative Catholics. Then Dr. Juhar’s speech ended and the Pope nodded to the conductor.
The conductor began the music, which lasted for about 50 minutes: it was beautiful, with an amazing violin soloist, 22-year-old Stefan Milenkovich. They played Kodaly’s "Danze di Galanta" and Mendelssohn’s "Concerto per violino e orchestra in mi, op. 64." I looked at the program to see who the performers were, and was stunned to see four names at the bottom of the program listed as "honored guests" (in Italian). One was Gottfried Müller, the other "Dr. Thomas Hartmann", and the other two heads of European parliaments seated with us.
After the music, the Pope was handed two typewritten pages by the Cardinal to his right. A microphone was placed in front of him, and he read them. He held the paper with a trembling hand: his Parkinson’s disease was most evident at this moment. With my poor Italian (I took two years of Latin and two years of Spanish, so I understood some of it) I understood him to thank the musicians and conductor, and to agree that ecumenical approaches were more and more necessary in today’s world. I may have this wrong, but I’m pretty sure that was the gist of his message. He spoke briefly in Hungarian to the orchestra, eliciting huge smiles.
After the Pope’s speech, Dr. Juhar’s wife called out those of us with the badges clipped to our clothes: perhaps 20 in all. We formed a line, and she and her husband stood beside the Pope, with a Cardinal and a priest on either side, introducing each of us. Most were dignitaries from Germany: for example, I’d been sitting next to the head of the German Bundestag (parliament), the German equivalent of the Speaker of the House.
Louise had been informed several months ago when I was invited to come that she could hear the concert but not personally meet the Pope, and had unhappily resigned herself to a nice concert and seeing her husband meet the pontif. But at breakfast the day before, which we had privately with Dr. Juhar, we were told (without asking: I’m not sure why) that an exception would be made: Louise could meet the pontiff, too. So she stood in front of me in line, shook his hand, and had a brief conversation with him. (Catholics kissed his ring, Protestants and others shook his hand.)
I was next and, with the official Vatican photographers clicking away, he shook my hand firmly (the pictures will arrive in the mail in a week or two). I asked him a very personal (for me) question, and he gave me an interesting answer. As I turned from shaking his hand, the priest who’d been sitting behind the Pope handed me a Rosary that had been blessed by the pontiff: Louise had been given one, too. And then I walked back to the front-row seats.
When all the people who were to be presented to the Pope had finished, he again gave his blessing to the audience, bringing applause from everybody, and then was assisted back into the castle by the Cardinal and a priest.
Once the Pope had left, the castle doors were unlocked, we found our ride and drove back to Rome, arriving around midnight. The next morning we took a flight from Rome to New York: I’m typing this on the plane. . .