Tuesday, February 15, 2011

His Holiness, His Eminence, and His Son

There’s a time and place for breaking in new shoes. This particular visit to the Vatican was not one of them.

I backpacked through Europe for a few weeks over the summer before starting school in London. I spent a lot of time on trains, a few of them overnight, arriving in a new city the next morning. Pretty limited wardrobe, little of which was clean after the first week, about all that looked good at that point were my new Rockport walking shoes.

Like walking on baby duck feather-filled pillows, packed with the tender love of one‘s mommy. Very nice for old cobblestone streets, or up and down flight after flight of Hostel staircases. The shoes were great the minute I put them on. No blisters, which is rare for me. Usually within ten minutes, quarter-sized blisters have attacked my heels and exploded, revealing Mike’s raw, throbbing hide.

So after a restless night’s sleep on my train from Germany, I arrived at my pension, which is European for “severely out-of-date, noisy hotel with no hot water and drapery with the light-omitting power of a giant, worn out hanky”. After a miserably cold shower and very dull-razored shave, I hit the streets.

I should note some pretty splotchy shaving results, like when a ten year old kid gives his five year old brother a haircut. Not that it really mattered. I was just going over to Vatican City to play tourist and ask about my dad’s childhood friend.

Before I left the country, my dad suggested that if I was at the Vatican, I should inquire about his friend, William Baum, aka Cardinal Baum. They grew up together and he was the first American cardinal ever assigned to the Vatican. Dad instructed, “Go up to a Swiss guard and say, ‘Is Cardinal Baum in Rome?’” You can’t miss the Swiss Guard. They have a court jester, colorful, wide-striped pajama look, but actually are bad asses, assigned to protect Vatican City. Dad went on to say that I wouldn’t get to see the cardinal, but it might get some perk like a special tour. Figured it was worth a shot.

So after taking in some sights, I approached a group of guards. I said the magic words, “Is Cardinal Baum in Rome?” I half expected him to shrug his shoulders and say, “How would I know?” Instead, like he’d been ask the question 100 times, he pointed me to a building on St. Peter‘s Square. “Go in that building and ask at the desk.”

I pushed open massive, wooden doors feeling like I’d just gotten off my beanstalk, waiting for shouts of “Fe, fi, fo, fum”. The desk was a few steps inside. The receptionist referred me to a desk down the corridor, by the elevators. Walking towards the next desk, the area looked like a museum without any exhibits. Long, cavernous room, not much to speak of for furnishings. Plenty of room for those monthly Vatican dance parties.

No offer of a special tour at the next desk. “Go up the elevator to the third floor.”

Things were taking an interesting turn. I didn’t expect to get through the big doors, let alone up an elevator. I snuck a whiff of my arm pits, hoping I was properly scented. If I suddenly represented the Brennan people, it was best to not stink.

Ding. Elevator doors opened. Here’s a surprise, another staffer minding a desk.

This time when I asked the question, basically, the response was, “Who wants to know?” I gave details about my dad’s and the cardinal’s life long friendship. I waited as she disappeared off down the hall.

Finally, I got some movement out of these Vatican types! Walking with the determination of a holy man chasing the antichrist out of a bingo game, a religious type in a flowing, black cassock returned with the staffer, . He introduced himself as a monsignor, the cardinal’s assistant. “Now, who are you again?” I deliver the full version of the story. I just hoped he wouldn’t check my Catholicness. Unless “Thou shall not put ketchup on a hot dog” was a commandment, coming up with all ten on request was a long shot. I could say “Grace” though, but I’d only use that if I needed to throw…wait for it….a HAIL MARY!

I followed him down the hallway. Suddenly, my shoes squeaked. Pretty new, like I said, but they had a few miles on them. Was this floor more polished? All I knew was with every step I took on some of the most hallowed ground in the religious world, I sounded more and more like a dog’s toy.

I was escorted into a non-descript conference room for a wait. The monsignor excused himself, returning a few minutes later. As he took me to another room, my shoes chirping away, he explained, “We just got back from New York and are just going through some mail. Have a seat, he’ll be with you in a minute.”

Okay, not what I expected. I’d better get my mind around this. There would be no special tour.

“How does one address a cardinal?” I inquire. Your eminence. Very cool. That kind of title would definitely give one the upper hand in a job interview. “So your eminence, where do you see yourself in five years?” Personally, I don’t see a day when I’m addressed with anything past “Bub”.

Left to wait, I took in the room. Now this was a room. Very Popey. Ornate. Classic red velvet and gold furniture, paintings of past popes, and a pretty kick ass view of St. Peter’s Square.. Sadly, no balcony from where I could address my flock.

It was go time. In walked Cardinal William Baum, formerly Billy Baum of Kansas City. No hat. Cardinals get hats too, not just the pope. He dressed in his casual Vatican attire similar to his assistant. “Your eminence, I’m Mike Brennan and I bring you greetings from the Brennan clan.” Okay, not so much like that, but I did address him properly as I introduced myself.

Priest handshake. Never worked a day in his life as my brother would say. Hand spongy like a ring bearer pillow. Not that I expected bricklayer calluses. We adjourned to the velvet for a chat. I’m impressed that he remembered my four siblings’ names.

It wasn’t not a long meeting. Perhaps fifteen minutes. I asked him what it was like selecting a pope. He raved about the current and past pope. He then hit me with the line of the trip. “It’s too bad his holiness isn’t here.”

This sleep-deprived college student with patchwork stubble and shoes reminiscent of the tin man in The Wizard of Oz was a summer vacation away from having one-on-one time with the leader of the largest religion in the world. Had the Pope not been at his summer home, it would have been one hell of a Christmas card.

Of course, I imagined walking into a room to meet him, and him hearing my entrance, looking up at me asking, “New Rockports?”