Vatican City — There was a woman this morning who came up to me while I was about to caffeinate at the McDonald’s here on Borgo Pio. (This doesn’t qualify as a sacramental Confession, but now you know.) I had seen her before, from a block or two away. She wears duct-taped garbage bags either as her shoes or over her shoes. Ditto a coat, which, truth be told, she’s wears so well — with a certain grace and dignity — that I’m not sure people give it a second look. A friend with more fashion sense than I will ever have once told me that whatever you wear, it’s more about how you carry yourself.
The woman with the garbage-bag coat had a confidence about her as she came up to the self-ordering kiosk and asked for food, motioning that she was hungry. I asked her in a mix of near-nonexistent Italian and hand motions and facial expressions what she’d like. Sixteen euros later, she not only said “thank you” — and more than once — in English, but a few minutes later, after starting to collect her nourishment, she asked me, quite beautifully, again in English, realizing I hadn’t ordered yet (I was making sure she was settled), “Are you hungry?”
How many times do we look past people? How many times do we take for granted what we have, what we’re given?
I realized I was, but not for anything McDonald’s had on the menu. How many times do we look past people? How many times do we take for granted what we have, what we’re given? I didn’t do much this morning, but I received a lot. Particularly by seeing not only the life of the Creator in this Italian woman — who frankly made more of an effort to know the essential words in my language than I in hers — but by being drawn by her prompting into a day where gratitude would be a theme. Gratitude is something to emulate, whatever we are wearing, whatever we are eating. And whether we have to ask for help or give thanks that someone else did, rather than rush to our meetings, we can try to remember to seek those who may need help more than we do.
My first meeting of the day was with Paul Badde, a journalist (described as a poet or mystic by some) who begins every day with a colleague praying the Rosary outside of St. Peter’s Basilica. (Inside, I suspect, if the line isn’t too long.) He has made it his business to know the Veil of Manoppello, believed to be the veil with which Veronica wiped Christ’s face during his painful road to crucifixion — an incident that has some historic evidence behind it, though it’s not in the Bible. Badde believes with all his body and soul that he has seen the face of Christ and knows God as the man he came to earth to be, to help humanity out of its sinful destitution.
Whatever one believes about the veil or about Christianity or religion more generally, hope is something most of the world could use more of. And just meeting Badde, you get the sense of looking past this world into a promise of something greater we have been made for, present right here and now. As with the woman at McDonald’s, there was something about his confidence. It betrays a joy, even a perplexing joy — in the case of a woman who spends her day begging, and in a man who will talk about a crisis of faith among those in the highest ranks of the Church. Keep praying, is his answer to most questions. He has a particularly intense devotion to the Mother of God, because she helped him know Jesus better.
Inside St. Peter’s, outside on the Square, and down the Via Della Conciliazione, the tourists I’ve noticed on and off the last few days seem unaware that St. Peter’s bones reside here, that he was martyred here, that some courageous men of history — John Paul II comes to mind — rest here. But then who am I to judge selfie-sticks and phone calls made inside the basilica? As I watch young African men trying to sell wooden trays, their full backpacks seem to betray their (lack of) success. (I’ve yet to see a sale completed, and I’m determined to have cash as I head out for my next meeting.)
Unlike my sister at McDonald’s and my brother talking about the Veronica’s veil, so many of these people in the crowd look like . . . people in the crowd, as though they may be feeling lost in the crowd and not just here. It’s hard not to look and pray that something here touches them. It’s often asked why the Church doesn’t sell its art. The answer is that people need the beauty. They need to see a mother holding her son in her arms, as Michelangelo left us in the Pietà — and in no small part so they can see beauty in themselves. (Badde talks about the self-reflection one can see in the veil. The face of God becomes so personal when you see the humanity mixed up with the divinity.)
While I’ve been here, the school shooting in Florida happened. I keep thinking about how it happened at the hands of a boy, really — not much younger than these men I see selling the trays and some of the young people I’ve seen on field trips. Also while here, I received an email from a reader about a young man at a school where she teaches who took his own life. We simply can’t let these things happen anymore. And it’s not going to be a law that makes the change. It’s going to be love: looking into the eyes of another with a recognition that they are made by the same Creator the sun and the moon was, and you and I were.