Jesus said, “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14
Back in 2010, my wife and I took a pilgrimage to Rome with our three boys and my mother-in-law. This was the first time any of us had been to Italy, and we fell in love with the Eternal City.
Months before our visit, I wrote to the Prefecture for the Papal Household, headed (at the time) by Abp. James Harvey, an American, to request tickets for Pope Benedict XVI’s Wednesday general audience, and also for the Papal Mass for the Opening of the Special Assembly for the Middle East of the Synod of Bishops.
When you write to the Prefettura Casa Pontificia, you receive a letter in return which invites you to visit the Bronze Doors after arriving in Rome to pick up your tickets. I assume that tickets are not mailed so that they can be re-issued if they are not picked up. With your letter in hand, the Swiss Guards will let you past the first sentry at the Bronze Doors to a station inside a long corridor where another guard gives you the tickets.
We ranged in age from 10 months (my youngest son) all the way up to my mother-in-law (age redacted), so decided that I would arrive several hours before the mass with my two older boys, and hold enough seats for my wife (bringing the baby) and mother-in-law to arrive later. Thanks to technology, we used text messages to find each other.
For events such as papal masses, the security forces in charge of St. Peter’s install a red fabric-draped waist-high barrier along both sides of the main aisle, which prevents people from disrupting the procession or leaving the basilica that way. If it weren’t there, the Holy Father and his retinue would get trapped by the throng of pilgrims trying to get in range to shake his hand or take a close-up photograph.
One of the most interesting parts of the mass was the long procession of Eastern rite bishops, with various ornate miters and crowns according to their tradition or rite; some of the types of headgear, vestments, and crosiers were very unusual and distinctive, speaking to the universality and diversity of the Church.
At the end of the long line of prelates, His Holiness Benedict XVI (who, in 2010, was still walking on his own without the use of the moveable platform that was constructed for him) processed toward the main altar.
After the Holy Father passed our row of seats, a plainclothes security officer (with dark Italian suit and earpiece) noticed me holding my baby son and my two older boys standing at the barrier. The officer approached us. He was friendly, but his broken Italian-accented English was almost unintelligible to me. What I heard him say was, “Your children… After mass… Holy Father… will bless them…” All the while, he was making a very distinct hand gesture. I will attempt to describe it.
You know when you’re holding a baby (often screaming) and it’s time to give him back to his mother? You take the baby, who you are holding under his arms, and you hold him out for the mother to take him. That was the gesture, except the security officer also included an “over the barrier” arc to the motion, which indicated to me that the “children” should be lifted over the barrier.
The excitement I felt at this was beyond imagining. My heart suddenly felt an outpouring of joy as though the Holy Spirit were right there, directing some sort of miracle.
We were already in Rome. We were joyful at the whole experience. We were enthralled at having just come within mere feet of Benedict XVI himself. We were about to attend a mass that he was celebrating, and here was an official member of the pope’s own security detail, telling me that after mass, the Holy Father would stop and bless our children, if I lifted them over the barrier!
I whispered to my wife, “That security officer says the pope will bless the boys if I lift them over the barrier when the pope recesses after mass.” We looked at other with that glance between husband and wife that says, “This is big. This is lifechanging. Praise God!”
We floated through the beauty and majesty of the mass, knowing that our sons would soon receive an individual blessing from the Vicar of Christ following the mass. For Catholic pilgrims, we had reached the summit.
Mass was beautiful, by the way. The Eastern hymns were enchanting and joyful, but unusual and unfamiliar to us. The text of the homily, some pictures, and video of the mass (mercifully, the incident I describe below is not depicted) is found on the Vatican’s website here.
At the end of mass, the enormous pipe organ began to blast the recessional hymn, and the formation of deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals began pouring down the aisle in the same order as before, with His Holiness again at the very end.
I made eye contact with the security officer coming down the aisle in front of the pope. He remembered! I couldn’t believe he remembered! And he nodded to me, right as Benedict XVI approached our row of seats. He made the same gesture again.
And then I did the wrong thing. I picked up the 45-pound near 5-year-old (our second son) and hoisted him over the barrier. He was HEAVY, and just as I was about to plant his feet on the other side of the barrier, the security guard began waving his arms, shaking his head and swiftly making his way toward me.
His expression asked, with extreme judgment, what was I DOING with my boy (since I could not make out the emphatic rapid-staccato Italian, other than the “No, No, No!”); what gave me the idea to do THAT?!?
I quickly reversed course and brought my son back over to our side of the barrier. My head was swimming in anxiety and dismay. By this time, Benedict XVI had been ushered safely past us, out of the way of the crazy American pilgrims.
I was shocked. I was embarrassed. A thousand people saw what had just happened and were undoubtedly chuckling to themselves at my stupidity. I, the enormous uncouth American, had done another stupid thing, just like all the other Americans.
What had I done wrong? The security officer’s “Your children” and the motion of lifting them over the barrier seemed unmistakable to me. How had I failed in understanding the instructions?
The officer returned to us after the commotion, and a little less cheerfully changed the word he used several times before mass. The word he previously used — “children” — was replaced by “bambino” and now he was pointing to the 10-month-old. I said something like, “Oh, the baby?” to which he responded, “Si, si, the baby!”
I apologized for the misunderstanding, wiped the cold sweat off my brow, and gave thanks to God that I wasn’t being escorted out with instructions to never return.
The lesson: if ever in a similar situation, hoist the baby over the barrier, no matter the word the officer uses. The pope will bless the baby.
[NOTE: Please, vote for me for Beer Camp!]