CCN correspondent meets Pope

  • July 27, 2009
{mosimage}VATICAN CITY - A long-awaited papal encyclical, a G8 summit and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first audience with a Pope converged on the decision to send me to Rome July 7-11, aboard the prime minister’s Airbus.

Once I arrived, I discovered the Holy Father would greet each one of the media individually after Harper’s audience. What a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity! To meet not only Christ’s vicar here on Earth but my favourite theologian. But what would I wear? Someone told me I should wear a head covering and closed-toed shoes. Do not have them.

Should I kiss his ring? How? I am not a Roman Catholic and accustomed to those things. I would love to kiss his ring. Should I bow? Kneel?

A Vatican friend told me not to worry. I did not need a head-covering and sandals would be fine. And don’t kneel if I thought I’d have trouble getting up again.

The day before the audience, I said goodbye to the sisters at Casa Santa Brigida, the convent where I stayed in Rome. I would spend the last night at the Marriott Grand Flora where the rest of the media were staying. Sr. Patricia asked me to please send their greetings to the Holy Father. They knew Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger well before he became Pope. “Tell him we love him,” she said.

The big day arrived. A white minibus picked up the small contingent of journalists that included a television crew, some photographers, a Radio Canada reporter, a couple of print journalists and some PMO staff. The bus took us to St. Peter’s Square, which had already begun to fill with tourists. The weather in Rome was perfect: warm, dry, sunny with a pleasant breeze.

We passed through a checkpoint of Swiss Guards beside St. Peter’s Basilica, through narrow passages and archways into the Cortille San Damaso, a courtyard inside the Apostolic Palace. As we waited, a group of Swiss Guards, wearing the multi-coloured striped uniform designed by Michelangelo marched into the courtyard, while another Swiss Guard raised the yellow and white papal flag from a second-storey window. A red-patterned carpet was being set in place for the PM.

We did not witness the Harper’s arrival. Instead, we were escorted through the rooms and hallways the Harper delegation would soon pass through. We passed an honour guard of Swiss Guards standing at attention, then through the magnificent frescoed hallway of 13 arches painted by Raphael.

Our final stop was a smallish room outside the papal library, where the Vatican Press Office’s Sr. Giovanna checked our credentials and told us we could enter the library at the beginning of Harper’s meeting with the Pope for a photo op.

Once the prime minister and the Holy Father were seated in the library, the door swung open, almost banging against one of the mosaics on the wall, and we rushed in. The shutters clicked, grabbing photos of the Holy Father seated at a desk kitty-corner to the prime minister.

Moments later we were ushered back to our little holding room, told we would be allowed back into the library for more photographs and an opportunity to greet the Pope.

The countdown began as people periodically checked their watches and called out the number of minutes the Holy Father and Harper had been speaking. After 20 minutes had gone by, the door swung open again. The Holy Father and Harper had moved to the back of the library, where they stood under Perugino’s painting The Resurrection of Christ.

The Pope greeted each member of the Canadian delegation, starting with the Harper’s wife Laureen and his children. Once that was done, there was a group shot, and again those of us with cameras were busy capturing every moment.

The gift exchange was next. The journalists were guided to the area on the other end of the room behind the desk. The Holy Father and Harper came forward to the desk where Harper gave the Pope a glass vase by Canadian designer Andrew Kuntz, then the Pope opened up a white display case to reveal a special fountain pen designed by Vatican Museum artists to resemble one of the columns of Bernini’s cast bronze canopy over the altar at St. Peter’s.

Then the Pope and Harper returned to the back of the large room. The Pope gave blessed key chains to the Harper children and a commemorative medallion to Mrs. Harper.

Then it was our turn. Sr. Giovanna had us line up along the wall behind the desk where Harper and the Holy Father had his audience. I stepped in line and soon, there he was. I stepped forward. He took both my hands, smiling at me. As I had been told to expect, he was totally present with me, not looking over my shoulder, his blue eyes on mine.

I forgot to kiss his ring. I brought him greetings from the sisters.

“Sr. Patricia said to tell you they love you,” I said, in such a way that he would know I love him, too.

“I also bring you greetings from my bishop, Bishop Peter Wilkinson of the Anglican Catholic Church of Canada,” I said. The Holy Father seemed to remember him, as they once had a private correspondence.

Then, knowing there was a line of people behind me, I knew my time was up and made way for the next person.

Amazing. But way too fast. Soon we were aboard the flight back to Ottawa.

Somewhere over the Atlantic, the prime minister’s press secretary invited me to interview Harper at the front of the plane. So, I followed him through to the area where the PMO staffers sat, then through a curtain to the front of the plane where Harper, his wife and children sat.

The PM and I spoke for about 15 minutes, while his wife read a book by the window across the aisle and the children sprawled with books and games on a large mattress.

My first audience with a Pope and a first exclusive interview with this prime minister. A sign of good things to come, I hope.

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