April 08, 2005

A papal goodbye

It was 1992 when I first met Pope John Paul II. I had only arrived in Rome a few days earlier, much to my chagrin, and found myself shuffled off right away for a papal visit. I lived in Vatican City  on the Janiculum hill, which over looked St. Peter's and the Vatican Palace. It was a beautiful place there, and when I arrived it was the end of August. The Mediterranean is a truly magnificent place, with the warm winds of Africa blowing across the sea, bringing with it, dust, heat, and sunsets that were truly on fire. The evenings we spent sipping wine and tasting all the delights we had known as children, but rediscovering them for the first time as adults and in their homeland, Italy. You've never truly tasted spaghetti, pasta, tomatoes, wine, bread, until you've tasted them baked, picked, toasted, that morning. Small cafes, no bigger than most of our bedrooms, serve as "ristorantes" throughout the city. Meals served by little woman who've done it a million times before but for you they smile as if you are their first guest. All these things I had to take with me to see this man, John Paul II, a somewhat unbelievable figure in 1992, as the world was smaller, and some said made better by him because he helped to defeat the evil of Eastern Europe, even in Germany, but especially in Poland. We didn't meet the Pope in St. Peter's nor did we meet him at the Vatican Palace, but rather at the audience hall built in the 1960s. It was a strange sight to see it after having seen the ancient parts of Rome, even the shops and restaurants seemed more ancient than this odd building. The room was packed with hundreds of people, but because we lived in Vatican City we had a separate seating area, roped off from the rest. The room was restless, and many people spoke "to" the Pope. Choirs sang, nuns cried and sighed (he's like a religious Elvis), and I sat there mostly unimpressed. He came to our groups as he was leaving the room, smiled, noticed we were from the Pontifical North American College, and stopped. He muttered something in Italian to me, while the students next to me were fawning over him and kissing his ring. Then he was whisked away. "Wasn't that amazing?" One student asked me. "Hmm, um" right answer, right answer, "Yes, yes it was amazing" Of course I thinking really, where is the nearest restaurant with Vino.

Through the gate I passed
and as I went along
I realized with a sense of Dread
this was not the place for me.
An ancient city above and below me,
a people long gone yet around me still.
My eyes wept from the smoke
of a burned, buried thing from so long ago.
The stone beneath my feet
hoping to catch me,
throw me down
yet my hands out stretched before me
reach to catch me,
but grab only decaying stone.
A fountain laughs there
but upon my lips fall
only an ash of a consumed branch
caught in the flame of a fire so cold
it chills me to the bone.
Through the gate I passed
and as I went along
I realized with a sense of dread
that this was not the place for me.
Thom Burkett


This poem was one I composed shortly after arriving in Rome. I realized that as I was there, I wasn't going to be terribly successful in the seminary as I really wanted to be there for the city itself, not for my faith. Living in Vatican City, and studying with a rather large group of zealous Catholic men, created personal tension. I gained almost 80 pounds, grew depressed, and grew very sad. I loved the city itself. Not unlike Carrie in Sex and the City, I grew to love the actual city. I could live there again, this time though it will be on my terms.

Okay, this is about the Pope - I met him again about four months later. This time it was a private audience in the Papal Palace next to St. Peter's. John Paul II was a powerful man. You can see it in his eyes. They burned brightly with great intelligence. You can feel it in his grip, and even though he was slightly stooped, his shoulders belayed great power that come from within. He spoke to me in Italian very briefly because English was never his most fluent of 12 languages. "Denver?" he said. "Yes Your Holiness, I am studying from Denver." "Beautiful mountains," he said. "Indeed, John Paul.....?" a gasp from some uber gay seminarian because I used his name not his title. "Si?" He replied. "I knew your friend Frank Chaptach, from Poland. You were ski partners when you were boys." He paused, and looked me in the eyes. "I remember Father Chaptach. He was a good man." He smiled, "You are lucky to have known him." He shook my hand and moved to the next seminarian. You know, that's the thing, it is the people that I've known, not the theology, religion, or all that nonsense, that have made my journey so fun. It's been painful too. I am lucky to know the people I've known.

I met John Paul II several times after that, I had lunch with him in Denver during World Youth Day. He was an interesting man. He and I were at odds, as I don't believe in the theology of the Catholic Church. Yet, I respected, and do respect him. He was brilliant. He was kind, he was a writer, an artist, a friend to millions. I'm not sad at his death, but this week I've been reflecting on my life with the Church, and to Her I owe a great debt. The fabric of my person was woven by the Church on so many levels. I choose to take with me the things that make me good. Everyone once and awhile I am wrestling with the demons She gave me too, especially the loss of my family. Once I left the Church the only members of my family that I have interaction with have been my parents. My two sisters and two brothers have spoken to me once or twice in the last 7 years, minus a friend of mine, who keeps telling me to come back to God and be happy with Christ. sigh, she does not understand, but if she read the poem above and knew the lines meaning, she might.

Goodbye John Paul II. Thanks for the memories.

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