“The Vatican through an Ambassador’s Eye”
Accompanying the U.S. Envoy to the Holy See
By Elizabeth Lev
Art historians secretly dream of going back in time to see artistic masterpieces in their original environment, rather than as museum pieces. In their wildest flights of fancy, they fantasize about being part of that world.
Last Friday, this art historian lived that dream when I accompanied my mother, Mary Ann Glendon, as she presented her credentials to Benedict XVI as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See.
As we donned our black mantillas at the embassy residence, we were already entering into a different criterion of beauty and worth. Covered head to toe in long skirts and jackets, all I saw were the radiantly happy faces of my mother, sisters and daughters.
Draped in black lace, I thought of the tabernacle and the chalice swathed in exquisite cloth to indicate the preciousness of what was concealed from view. Furthermore, the precariously perched veils made one stand taller and conferred a stately dignity to our New England stride.
Two gentlemen of the papal court arrived at the embassy in a row of cars for the ambassador and her family; they ranked as princes not only for their long-established bloodlines, but also for their charm and kindness. The ease with which they engaged the various members of the family in conversation was only the beginning of our warm welcome to the Holy See.
The gentlemen regaled us with a story of how one diplomat brought 28 members of his family to the credentials ceremony including a number of small children. The children were particularly rambunctious it seems, running and climbing around the reception rooms while the Pope and the gentlemen laughed.
We were grateful for the comforting tale, feeling pretty certain that none of us would try to swing from a chandelier.
The cavalcade passed through the Square packed with tourists, pilgrims and the busy, everyday life around St. Peter's. We then drove into the tranquility of the gardens enjoying the peaceful scenery, before winding through tightly knit towers and walls, dropping back in time as we reached the oldest parts of the Vatican palaces.
In the luminous courtyard of St. Damasus, we came to a halt in front of an impressive array of Swiss Guards in ceremonial uniforms complete with the bright red-plumed helmets. They presented their arms in greeting before ushering us into two wood-paneled elevators— an appreciated modern concession for some very impractical shoes— which whisked us to the floor of the papal receiving rooms.
We passed through the Sala Clementina, the high-vaulted hall gleaming with colored marbles and angels bearing the coat-of-arms of Clement VIII cavorting overhead. These rooms were familiar since I had had the good fortune of a group meeting with Pope John Paul II within these walls.
A long chamber followed, with red seats along the walls culminating in a raised dais. This chamber serves for consistories and "ad limina" visits. Gradually the rooms got smaller as we moved into the more intimate reception areas.
Smaller paintings adorned these walls: a strikingly realistic image of Christ in blessing by Dürer sat next to El Greco's evocative vision of Christ in meditation.
Every now and then exotic objects added an unexpected note to the simple, sober décor. A rococo porcelain clock with pastel festoons carried the well-wishes of an Austrian emperor, while delicate Chinese vases framed a window overlooking the square. A Byzantine illuminated manuscript reflected the faith of the East while an enormous gold crucifix set in a hunk of amethyst and malachite testified to the extravagant generosity of the Russian Tsars.
Treasures from the most far-flung corners of the world easily found a place in the elegant setting of the papal apartments.
The last room was a throne room of sorts, complete with a raised throne in red damask silk. Here Ambassador Glendon left us to enter the Benedict XVI's study alone for a few minutes of private conversation with the Holy Father.
The walls on either side of the throne boasted two life-size paintings of St. Peter and St. Paul. Fra Bartolomeo, a Dominican painter of the High Renaissance, executed the panel of St. Paul, while St. Peter was the work of Raphael.
The two monumental figures, reminded me of where I was and who I was going to see. The weighty form of these saints drove home the fact that almost 2,000 years that have passed since Peter and Paul died, here in this city, becoming the foundation of the church in Rome.
In these masterpieces, Raphael and his collaborator enhanced their symbolic message through color.
Paul's robe glowed a deep red while Peter's shone in brilliant orange, the colors of flame.
Like flint and steel, the two apostles ignited the Christianization of Rome, still burning brightly today. The man we were about to meet was the keeper of that flame.
The door to the Pope's study opened and we entered in single file. I expected to see Benedict XVI on a raised dais in the middle of the room. Wrong. The Holy Father was standing next to the door, looking like a delighted host eager to greet long-awaited guests.
I had read about papal affability in the jocular exchanges between Popes and artists, not to mention the countless stories from the reign of John Paul II, but to see that friendliness in person was still surprising. No distant aura of aloofness, no chilly sanctimoniousness, but a sincere smile and frank interest in each person presented to him.
With our heads in the clouds and broad smiles creasing our faces, we posed for photos and received rosaries and blessings from Benedict VI. I thought the day had hit its zenith, but again, I was wrong.
As we filed back out into the loggia, four Swiss Guards took places around the new ambassador. With their halberds raised, they formed a protective curtain around her.
The stately procession made its way down the stairs to the colorful halls of the Sala Reggia and Sala Ducale, until we reached the Royal Stairs, the dramatic descent from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter's Basilica and Square.
After 10 years of visiting the Basilica almost daily, I saw it with different eyes.
Turning into the bronze portals, we saw the immense nave of St. Peter's stretched out before us; the ambassador's cortege was tracing the same route as the papal procession for Mass.
The size of the Basilica amazes all visitors, but for the Pope, the vast and awe-inspiring space contained within its walls must be a striking reminder of his responsibilities as the successor of St. Peter.
Along the nave, Jesus' words to St. Peter shimmer in gold mosaic, while in the apse, written in both Latin and Greek, is Christ's charge to feed his 1.1 billion sheep and lambs around the world.
More than just a great Catholic clubhouse, the basilica underscores the tremendous duty of the universal pastor.
The role and responsibility of the new ambassador grew clearer as well; to nurture longstanding associations and forge new bonds of fellowship between our young country and the venerable See of Peter.
But these burdens are not shouldered alone. The ambassador's tour of the basilica stopped at three points; first, in front of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament where a red velvet kneeler awaited her. The curtains were drawn back and Eucharist shone out from the altar between Bernini's two graceful angels kneeling in adoration.
After the ambassador had a few moments with Christ, we walked to the altar of the Madonna of Perpetual Succor.
There, at the first altar to be completed in the new St. Peter's, the ambassador knelt where countless saints had asked and received assistance from the Blessed Virgin in their endeavors for the Church.
Finally, we arrived at the heart of the basilica, the "Confession" containing St. Peter's tomb. The ambassador knelt one last time, a stone's throw from the site where St. Peter was martyred, before this rock upon which the Church was built.
While the ambassador prayed before Peter's tomb, light played through Michelangelo's dome hovering above her, illuminating the images of saints and angels in mosaic. I may be biased, but I think it's going to be a good year.