As the nearby television set showed gray smoke turning white above the Sistine Chapel of the Vatican, indicating that a new pope had been elected, Don Ridolfi, one of the regulars, asked me a question:
“Have you ever been to Rome and gone to the Vatican?
I answered, “Why, yes, now that you mention it, I have. I even saw the pope inside St. Peter’s Basilica.”
I had to think back 58 years, to 1955, to recall my visit and how I happened to see the pope, but as I thought about it, those memories quickly came vividly to mind.
I was in the Army in Germany at the time, and a good friend of mine, James Alexander “Smitty” Smith, a freckled-face Irish kid from Chauncey Street, Brooklyn, N.Y., and I took some leave time to travel to Italy in my small, green Morris Minor.
As we mapped out our travel plans, we didn’t know exactly where we would be staying most of the time, but we knew where we would be sleeping once we reached Rome.
Smitty’s close friend was Jim Finnerty, also from Brooklyn, and Finnerty’s brother was a priest who was studying at the American seminary in Rome. Finnerty arranged for us to stay with his brother at the seminary.
As expected, the rooms at the seminary were spare, but the breakfast fare was more than adequate. And we became acquainted with Finnerty’s brother, whose first name has drifted from my memory bank, and several others of the American priests.
On our second day, the priests told us they had a special treat for us. We were all going to the Vatican to witness a ceremony that was part of the beatification of a saint.
They explained that beatification was the last step before the ceremony held later to officially make the person — the Internet confirmed for me that it was Pope Innocent XI, a 17th-century prelate — into a saint.
When we reached the Vatican, the entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica was jammed. But we had passes, thanks to the priests, and were ushered in.
Inside, we stood in a crowd near the central walkway, and after several minutes, the Swiss guards, in their colorful uniforms, carried in the pope — Pius XII — on their shoulders. They passed within a couple of feet of us, as the Italians, who made up most of the people there, shouted, “Viva il Papa!”
“Well, the Italians get a little excited about all of this,” Finnerty’s more-restrained brother told us.
The ceremony was conducted in Latin, as were most in those days, so the priests had to tell us what was happening at the far end of the basilica.
As the final beatification ceremony was held in October and this was the middle of summer, what we watched was the pope’s announcement that Innocent XI had qualified as a saint, beginning the beatification process.
I kept thinking, Here I am in St. Peter’s with the pope. Shouldn’t I be having some kind of religious experience?
Just then, Smitty nudged me and said, “Look over there, aren’t those the English girls we said hello to when we came in?”
“You’re right,” I answered, “one of them waved.”
And then the crowd shifted, the girls were gone and we never saw them again.
I thought to myself, “I guess that’s as close to a religious experience as I can have. The good Lord must want young guys, even a couple of GIs, to be more interested in some pretty girls than a ceremony in Latin.”
Over the years, I’ve lost contact with Smitty, but the last time I saw him, he was a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department in Indonesia. And he was married — to an English girl.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 835-3030 or by email at email@example.com.