Dilemma resolved; blessing received
April 18, 2008
To follow up on my last posting: I did make the trip to Washington, D.C. after all, and I did see the pope, although not upon his arrival at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception as I had originally planned but earlier in the day, by waiting along the route of his motorcade. Having arrived on Tuesday too late to get a ticket from the Alumni Office of Catholic University, and having read in Wednesday morning’s Washington Post that Pope Benedict would be making a procession around noon from the White House to the Vatican Embassy at 3339 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., I took the Metro to Foggy Bottom near Washington Circle, and waited for an hour or so on the south side of Pennsylvania Avenue near the corner of 21st Street, in front of George Washington University. Crowds had gathered, and continued to gather, along both sides of the road behind police barricades, with people of all physical and economic descriptions mingling peacefully, awaiting the pope’s appearance on a warm, sunny spring morning. Across the street, a child held a sign that wished Pope Benedict a Happy Birthday. I thought I saw, across the street, a former student of mine, now a nursing student at GWU, but was prevented by the barricades from making further enquiries. A little to my right, a group of students from the local Redemptorist seminary was chanting loudly and boisterously, in English and Spanish, to the accompaniment of Mexican drums, beneath a white banner with lettering that read, among other things, “Where Peter is, there is the Church.” (They looked a little like rabbinical students at first, because of their beards.) Also towards my right stood a man whose name I didn’t know but whom I was fairly certain I’d encountered many years before, looking very Washingtonian in his grey business suit and sunglasses, like some character from the comic strip Doonesbury; the presence of the crowds, and the expectation of seeing Pope Benedict, had evidently prevailed upon this man’s nature, too, to such an extent that, momentarily forgetting his studied nonchalance and self-possession, he had descended to the sidewalk to gaze down the avenue along with the women, the children, the tourists, the zealots, and the rest of the anonymous crowd. Behind me, salesmen passed back and forth selling commemorative tee-shirts, buttons, and white and yellow Vatican flags, the tee-shirts for $5, the flags (at least, the larger ones) for $10. At certain street-corners, other peddlers passed out free sectarian literature (“America: Superpower of Prophecy”; “National Sunday Law: A Shocking Glimpse Behind the Scenes”). In the glass office-buildings that lined the boulevard, people stood staring at the scene outside their windows, temporarily ignoring their paperwork. Finally, around 12 noon, helicopters began circling overhead, some cars and motorcycles and medical vehicles passed by very quickly, it became clear that something was happening, and a few minutes later the motorcade began to appear, proceeding slowly down the avenue; first, evidently, some Secret Service men inside an SUV, then other cars with important-looking persons in them, then, finally, the pope in his yellow and white popemobile. (At least, I recall it having been yellow and white; in the New York Times yesterday, there was a picture that showed it to be simply white, which is not how it seemed to me at the time. I had completely forgotten about the existence of the popemobile, and had been wondering how the pope would be protected from possible lunatics, of which my country unfortunately has a superabundance.) Pope Benedict was seated on a raised seat inside the popemobile’s tall glass enclosure, from which he could turn and bless the crowds; two other bishops, dressed in black, sat facing him. At length, the pope, in his vehicle, passed by the area where I was standing. It would probably be presumptuous of me to suppose that, among that teeming mass of American humanity, I stood out in any way, such that the Bishop of Rome should have taken any personal notice of me. Yet it seemed to me that he did. At any rate, I took the blessing that Pope Benedict gave in our direction as directed towards me personally, as well as directed personally towards the others who had come to receive it.
One may wonder what is the point of seeing someone in person from a distance of 15 or 20 or 30 yards when one has such a better view of him from a television set or from pictures in a book or newspaper or on a computer screen. A simple answer would be that all pictures produced by art or technology are merely copies and representations of the original thing, the unique human being, and can never replace him or her or fully communicate a personal presence. Art can never replace life. And life, as the title of one book truly states, is with people. However briefly and imperfectly, I did get some sense of Pope Benedict XVI this Wednesday, a sense of his presence as a person, which I don’t think I could have gotten otherwise than by seeing him and being seen, even if as part of a crowd.
After this, as the crowds were thinning and I was walking back towards the subway, it occurred to me to call an old friend who lives in the neighborhood of Washington Circle, whom I had not seen or heard from for some time. In fact, about fourteen years ago, I had offended this friend in a serious way, not by forethought but by selfishness and stupidity, such that, although I had seen him and spoken with him occasionally over the years since then, he had never really forgiven me. He agreed to meet me, although I judged by the sound of his voice that he felt no joy at the prospect; his face, when I saw him, fully confirmed my impression that he had consented to meet me only out of a sense of lugubrious duty. We walked to a coffee shop, my attempts to engage him in conversation all failing. He insisted upon buying the coffee, then stepped outside for awhile as though unsure whether he really wanted to sit down and talk. Eventually he did sit down and talk. Suffice it to say that, during the course of an often difficult conversation, which lasted about three hours, I began gradually to perceive again the truth of the proverb, “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17). At the end of those three hours, he extended to me again the right hand of friendship. I am under no illusions as to that amicable feeling being irreversible or yet firmly grounded; nevertheless, I consider that change of heart no small miracle, and I credit it to Pope Benedict’s blessing. Those of you who may be gathering evidence to support the cause of Pope Benedict’s future beatification should make a note of this testimony.