The Brass Door
My day began with eating cake and drinking espresso with a pitcher of hot milk. On the way to work I found myself in Rome and I knew nothing of the city. Because I always fly by the seat of my pants I bought a Rome travel guide once I landed and learned over breakfast that I could see the Sistine Chapel.
I left the comfort of my hotel and hit the streets with a map and a general idea of which way I needed to head. Along the way I realized that I was a foreigner… a naive one at that… and never considered that language might be of an issue. Finally, I crossed a bridge, came around a corner and was amazed by a wide corridor that extended up to the steps of a massive church.
The machine guns and the metal detectors outside surprised me however my excitement dismissed them as I passed through. As I made my way up to the main steps I heard the first piece of English that day. A pretty voice spoke to me and said, “If you speak English I’m about to start a free tour.” I continued past and then stopped. I’m not sure if it was the English or the offer of a free tour that caught my attention. Regardless, I turned around and joined the group.
The first obvious benefit of joining was, learning the proper name of the building was St. Peters Basilica and that the Sistine Chapel was around the corner. The guide showed us amazing art and dead popes while continually apologizing that we could not see everything because of a very special occasion. Just before we left the building she said the Pope was holding a mass and she had two free tickets. BLINK BLINK BLINK (I understood why I was pulled to join the group). As we stepped out of the church I tried to keep close to her but in the crowd I fell a couple steps behind. When I caught up, I watched her hand over two blue tickets to another couple. I cringed! I immediately told her that I wanted to go and she informed me that she was only given two at the beginning of the day. I understood of course, but that was not the answer I wanted. “Where do I go if someone decides they can’t make it?” She responded… “Go to the Swiss Guard at the Brass Door.”
I thanked her and got in line to go through the metal detectors again. I walked up and down the side of building looking for anything brass. When I saw ‘staff’ who looked as if they could assist I was dismissed with some version of I don’t speak English. Finally, I saw a nun carrying a blue ticket up a set of stairs inside another barricade . Sure enough the door was brass. The Guards were wearing purple, gold and red and I realized putting some history lessons together that these were the (Medici) Swiss Guards. My next task was to get passed two heavily armed men… and into an area that only priests and nuns seemed to be allowed to enter.
I’d like to say that I had a plan. I’m not even sure that I smiled extra big or batted my eyelashes. I just walked up and spoke English to a gun man who only seemed to speak Italian. Of course, I had a feeling that there were some words (if not all of them) that secretly he knew. I tried. He rejected me. I tried again and he rejected me again. Just then another nun passed up the stairs with another blue ticket. I pointed at the ticket and assumed the please, please, please, pray, pray, pray hand gesture… and it worked. He pointed to the top of the stairs and moved the barricade.
When I reached the top I met eye contact with a non- blinking man. I politely asked if there were any blue tickets to attend the mass with the Pope. The non-blinker snapped and said NO! The other guard was gentler and spoke very clean English.. He asked, how many do you need? “ONE- JUST ONE!! ” Blue ticket in hand!!!
I had sometime to kill so I went over to the Sistine Chapel (now that I knew where it was) and I laid on the reclining benches and studied Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and the Book of Genesis).
When the appropriate time had come I returned to the plaza outside St. Peter’s, which had been cleared of tourist. A line of nuns and priests formed from the front door. I was a little nervous at first and then joined the line regardless thinking if it was the wrong line I will be moved eventually.
As the doors opened we filed in. I was so close to the beginning that I had my pick of spaces to sit. The first noticeable spot was in the first row and about the 5th seat in… however I picked the 5th row from the front and on the center isle. As the seats filled I realized I was in very good company.
The Pope arrived and the crowd stood and erupted in cheers! I’m pretty sure I stood there with my mouth gaping open as his hover thrown passed by close enough to touch.
The mass was in Italian, Latin and a few other international languages. Eventually someone spoke in English, which after an hour of not understanding anything rang out loud and clear. I will write the exact passage from the prayer book I was given below. What was enlightened upon me in the moment was this: “It doesn’t matter how you get on the path… as long as you do.” A few minutes later a number of cardinals stood up with bowls of wafers and stood at the head of each pew. I knew from shooting weddings that this meant mass and that also meant, non-catholic participation was not suggested.
The furthest person in my row got up and walked down the aisle and stood in front of me as I watched him or her (I don’t remember now) accept the Body of Christ. He / she walked back to their seat and the next person walked in front of me and did the same thing. I stood and watched at least a dozen people take communion in my ‘personal space.’ As the line got shorter and shorter I realized it was going to be my turn soon. A battle erupted in my mind. Do I say yes, or do I say no?
A voice came over me like a loud speaker and said, “It doesn’t matter how you get on the path as long as you do.” By that time it was my turn. I opened my mouth and I took the wafer. That was my first and only day in Rome.