Monday, January 19, 2009


Writing about the Vatican Astronomical Observatory yesterday got me thinking more about that summer. Perhaps the highlight of my experience was singing for Pope John Paul II while I was living in the Papal Palace there at Castel Gandolfo, about 30 kilometers outside Rome. The Jesuits occupied two floors of the living quarters, while the Pope and his entourage had the rest. Because of light pollution in the area, neither of the two telescopes on the grounds of the Palace was being used for stargazing; one was ultimately moved, I believe, elsewhere so that it could be.

Of course, being there for Italy winning the World Cup wasn't so bad, either. What an amazing celebration! Getting to hang out with the Swiss Guard, most of whom were my age, was a blast, too.

I found it amusing, and somewhat ironic, to be living in a palace that had been built by Pope Clement XIV. He was a Franciscan Friar who had been educated by the Jesuits, who later suppressed the Socity of Jesus (the Jesuit Order) by Papal decree in 1773. The jealousy and fear of the Bourbon monarchs of Spain and France impelled them to seek the destruction of the Jesuits. Catherine the Great of Russia, perhaps to annoy the Pope or the Bourbons, forbade the publication of that decree in her realms, and thus the Jesuits survived until their complete restoration in 1814.

My friends who go to a lot of AA and/or Al-Anon meetings would probably say that this sad history simply reflects the truth of their Tradition Six which states that "problems of money, property, and presige divert us from our primary spiritual purpose."

One might note that the French Revolution took place in 1789, just 16 years after the suppression of the Society of Jesus. Soon all the monarchies which had aligned against the Jesuits were overthrown, and people who had earlier pushed for the destruction of the Society of Jesus began to ask for its return.

Be careful what you wish for, I guess...

(Tom W, sober since God was young it seems, says that I'm easily distracted by 'sparkly things' and I guess this digression into Jesuit history proves his point...)

Getting back to Castel Gandolfo, then. There's a central spiral staircase in the living quarters of the castle, the stone steps of which have tiny enough rises that donkeys in the Eighteenth Century would be able to carry provisions up to the highest floors. The acoustics in that stairwell were simply awesome.

I would go there after dinner and sing for an hour. (Before coming to Rome, while I was obtaining my master's degree in philosophy, which I'd just finished, I had been taking voice lessons for the first time since college.) It was a space that made even *my* voice sound good, and bigger than it is, which is saying something.

What a trip!

The summer I was there was the first time JPII returned to Castel Gandolfo since the attack on his life by Mehmet Ali Ağca in May, 1981. The Pope had a childhood friend visiting him for about a month that summer. She couldn't speak English, and I couldn't speak Polish, but we were able to communicate in German. Go figure.

Herta was there with her daughter and two grandchildren. Those youngsters heard me singing one evening, and went to get their grandmother, because they and I could not understand one another. Over several weeks' time, they tried to teach me to count to ten and to prounounce the days of the week in Polish.

Boy, did they laugh at my expense! And laugh. And laugh. Herta even laughed at my German, which of course was the only appropriate response to it. Other than pity. Or perhaps horror.

One night I was in my room at the Jesuit Community and was told I had a couple of visitors. The children had come to see me, with a message from their grandmother. "You must there be. If late not work."

I admit I was a bit confused, yet intrigued. They were very pleased with themselves, having spoken to me in English. I congratulated them as we went to speak with their grandmother, since I had no clue what was going on.

Turns out, Herta had arranged for me to sing -- all by myself -- at a Mass in the Pope's private chapel there at Castel Gandolfo. It was 10:30 at night when I found out that Mass was at 5:30 the next morning, and that I had to be at the entrance to the Papal apartment at 5:00.

I hadn't brought any clerical garb to wear, and I surmised it might not be a good idea to show up wearing what I had brought with me. I wasn't sure how well my *very* long hair would go over, either. Long story short: One of the community members told me he thought he had a black suit, somewhere, and that I could wear it if he could find it.

Get this: It was a black polyester leisure suit which had been stored wadded up in a ball in a paper bag on the floor of his closet, for years. It defined "perma-wrinkled." I spent a couple of hours engaged in the Sisyphean task of trying to iron the wrinkles out, without melting the "fabric." I finally just gave up.

Despite all this, I managed to get there on time, and sing for the Pope and the Canadian pilgrims at Mass. Afterward, as the Pope was shaking my hand, a photographer from L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, snapped photos of us.

Two days later, I went to the newspaper's central offices, and bought copies of the photos.

Once I returned to the United States, I turned one of the photos into Christmas postcards which read: "Merry Christmas from the two of us."

Blessings and peace to one and all,

Fr. Tim, SJ

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Anonymous said...

Please, please, please post the pic of you and the Pope! We just have to see the "long" hair!
Blessings to you,
Katie A.

cptdrfrtim said...


I'd love to post the photo, but it'll have to wait until I redeploy. Along with everything else of mine, it's in storage back home, and I don't have a digital version of it.... Remind me in July, in case I forget, please!

Fr. Tim, SJ

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