Vatican City, Italy: An Audience with The Pope

Vatican City

Last week, I Pope-d over (har) to Italy and Rome-d around (har har) the Eternal City and Vatican City.  Now, I'm not especially religious. I'm not an atheist either. I'd say I'm agnostic. I am spiritual, very superstitious, I believe in the supernatural, the world of spirits etc. and I do believe in a higher power. I don't believe that this higher power necessarily takes on the form of an anthropomorphic, fatherly figure nor that this higher power must be called by a name and have a face. The way I see it is that the crux of all religions are the same: be a good person, help those in need, chew with your mouth closed. Whether you pray to Jehovah, a nameless faceless presence, or nobody at all, the enduring message that religion wants you to keep close to your chest is to have faith, love, help, and protect your fellow (wo)man.

The thing is, for a few years I had a great disdain for religion, more specifically the religious (This was during the inevitable socialist-communist-atheist phase I went through during university. I also wore Doc Martens and shaved a side of my hair just because). I thought of the devout as sheep. I thought of religion as the cause of most of the bloodshed recorded throughout the annals of history to present day. I sneered as religion as a tool of oppression. An atheist (and in hindsight a savant snob) I was dating at the time said, with curled upper lip, that 'Religion has one purpose and that is to keep the wretched in check. Without the promise of being rewarded with a better life after death in exchange for good behaviour they would have nothing to lose and therefore threaten polite society. Only the desperate and the stupid would believe such dogma.' My personal view on the religious while not that extreme was incredulous. How could anyone unquestionably agree with everything they were told was gospel truth? How could anyone dismiss evolution and say that science should not be taught at school? How could anyone in their right mind agree with a twisted preacher who insists that his interpretation of the Holy Book dictates that we should hide and oppress women? Add to that the corruption in the Catholic church, people telling me that I'm going to hell for not picking a side (or rather their side), and people trying to convert me against my will. Is there any doubt why my view on religion is so tainted? 

So for a long time I couldn't see the forest for the trees. I chose to focus on the details I disliked about religion, specifically the Catholic church. That it was outdated with its dismissal of contraception and the persecution of those they deem 'heretics', the hypocrisy of denouncing gays when there existed a subculture of male priests sexually abusing male adolescents...need I go on? In short my view of Catholicism was a bunch of out-of-touch old dudes telling everyone they were going to go to hell which was ironic given that they were covering up atrocities within their walls.

Then along came Pope Francis. Need I say more?

I wanted to see for myself the Pope who embodies what I believe a religious leader should be: a humble man who serves the people, eschews grandeur and opulence (he said no to official papal apartments, opting to live in a more modest 'Vatican hotel' and wants to take the bus to work), has the common touch and isn't afraid to get his hands dirty, gets with the times. And who can forget:

Pope Francis gives me hope for the world that my children will inherit.

So I requested a ticket to an audience with the Pope. It was entirely fortuitous that my trip to Rome coincided with a papal audienceand even more so when I realised that the deadline to request for tickets was the very next day! Tickets are free but one has to request them no later than two weeks beforehand, and I managed to send off an email exactly one day and two weeks before the papal audience of the 25th June, Wednesday morning.

An Agnostic, here to see the leader of Catholics. I always say that I never understood the divide and animosity between different sects of Christianity. Same brand, different salesmen.

I was advised to go to the site of the papal audience, St Peter's square, at least 3 hours before. But there was no way that showing up at seven thirty in the morning was going to get anyone past the more ardent and the devout pilgrims who have probably been there since dawn, so I rocked up a mere half hour before the audience began. The square was packed to the brim and not even the impending storm clouds would make the devout leave their spot in the crowd.

Then His Holiness himself showed up on the back of a white Jeep.

To the sound of fanfare, music, cheers, and screams of adoration Pope Francis drove around the square, high-fiving the crowds jumping up and down for a glimpse of him, waving to the thousands of cameras pointed at him, and smiling as the crowd screamed "Papa Franceso! Papa Franceso!" Myself, I whooped "Pontifex! Pon-ti-fex!" Blaring music, huge crowds of excited, screaming people, the promise of rain, and a star reaching out to high-five his adoring fans into a frenzy, what does this remind you of? A music festival! And The Pope is the rockstar. 

It was Pope-chella.

Pope Francis blessed this baby girl and her mother, a Brazilian lady, was so overwhelmed she couldn't stop crying with joy. She wiped off the mascara from her cheeks, then I showed her this photo and she cried another happy river of makeup. She gave me her email and instead of waiting till I got back to London I sent her these pictures the very same day. I figured she was already on such a high, why not put another cherry on the cake? 

Now I'm jealous of a baby. I want Papa Francesco's blessing too! But the way I see it is that I live quite a charmed life and have always been lucky. If I had a chance to speak to him I'd ask him to bless the people who need it, I have enough blessings for myself already. 

The rain was getting too much, so we sought refuge at the Vatican Museums. The epic queues of people lining up to buy tickets for the museums are the things of legend, so I pre booked tickets online and whizzed right past the queue and walked straight in. As I passed the mile long line of people queuing in the blazing Roman sun I said: "Wow, a Roman queue can't be finished in a day."

The Vatican Museum's opulence and size is unlike any museum I've ever seen. It makes the V&A look like a pop up gallery and Versailles hall of mirrors look modest. Every square inch, from the ceilings to the nooks and crannies (crooks and nannies?) were stuffed with imagery, gilded in gold, bursting with detail. To say nothing of the crowds which were so packed that at times you couldn't stop to see anything, you were just being herded along and catching mere glimpses of all the art. The experience was overwhelming to say the least, one could work at the Vatican Museum for decades and not see everything. I have to say that the Catholics have the best collection of art and sculpture. True, they are hoarding priceless relics and immense wealth yet charging each visitor €20 for the pleasure to see them. But the Vatican is its own country and this is their one of their few sources of income, plus a museum that size isn't going to maintain itself. Really, €20 is not unreasonable when you think about it.

My dress is a dupe of Dolce & Gabbana Spring/Summer '13. I was going to match Le Boy with a pair of Chanel espadrilles but couldn't get them on time. 

I was amused by how this seagull was perched on a moving globe and it merely shifted itself around as the globe spun on its axis.

This must be the Pope of seagulls.

Pope Seagull giving his address to the birds who come far and wide to hear him speak.

In 1857 Pope Piux IX took a mallet and castrated all the male statues in the Vatican City, deeming them to be too racy and prone to inflame the base instincts of the licentious. The disfigured crotches were covered in fig leaves and even now some status have gaping holes where their manhoods once were. Somewhere in the Vatican City there is a dusty, forgotten box of stone penises. I'm waiting for the hilarious and glorious day it is found.

This dog looks a bit stoned.

So do these.

What did I say about the crowds? This is nothing compared to the hordes of sardines packed into the Sistine Chapel who were ushered in then herded out like cattle. It was impossible to appreciate the Sistine Chapel and I found it massively disappointedly and underwhelming compared to the splendour of the Vatican Museums. 

Before I even got to the Sistine Chapel I was on the verge of an anxiety attack, suffering from claustrophobia and dehydration, so I quickly shuffled through the Sistine Chapel (no photos because it wasn't allowed) before leaving the Holy City. There was just too much to take in in one day, so I returned the next day for St Peter's Basilica. 

Priests arranged according to height for your delight.

The iconic Swiss Guards. 

For all their apparently comically costume-y appearance (I saw a few American tourists sniggering at their uniforms) these soldiers are more than formidable. Since the late 15th century Swiss mercenary regiments have guarded European royal courts and served as regular line groups in various armies. They gained a fearsome reputation for discipline, loyalty, revolutionary battle tactics, and bravery. Remember the Lion Monument in LuceneThe Sacking of RomeThe Massacre of The Swiss Guards? Yeah. These days the Swiss Guards protect the Pope and the Apostolic Palace and serve as the de facto military of Vatican City.

And salute nuns.

Look at how happy these nuns are to be saluted by a handsome young soldier! "Oooooh, young man!" 

This tourist who tried to wander into an off-limit area was politely saluted by this Swiss Guard before being asked to move along. I wonder if the Swiss Guards salute everyone, or just women? And yes, the Swiss Guards are trained to use those Halberds. In fact they're trained in many weapons both medieval and modern. Don't even try to get past any of them. 

After enough faffing about I joined the formidable looking (but very fast moving!) queue into St Peter's Basilica. What's the fastest way to beat the queue? Dress as a priest and pretend to be very busy. Ha!

Seats waiting to be filled for the next audience. 

As with all holy places there is a dress code requesting men and women to be modestly dressed ie. cover your shoulders and knees. I think that is entirely reasonable but from the way some women were outraged at being told they couldn't come in because they were dressed inappropriately you'd think that they were being slut-shamed at their wedding. This lady stormed off because of her plunging minidress; between the low back of the dress showing off half her crack and short skirt barely skimming her buttocks there was perhaps six inches of fabric protecting her modesty. 'Tis for the best, in her seven inch heels there was no way she would have climbed the 500+ steps of the dome. 

The entrance to the Basilica.

St Peter's Basilica blew me away.

I knew of it as the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and that Michelangelo and Bernini were two of the principal designers. I expected it, as all churches are, to be designed to install in you a sense of wonder, awe, and fear (or rather daring to believe) in God. I anticipated to be blown away by the size, scale, and detail of it having been prepared by the grandeur and enormity of the Vatican Museums.

But what I didn't expect was to be so swayed by the might and wealth of the Catholic church that I nearly was tempted into converting.

An especially magical moment was hearing a choir of priests sing at mass. The only world that can describe it is divine. One can see how evocative it is all designed to be. Even if religion is not for me what is important is that the hope and inspiration it brings is real.

The terrifying faceless, winged statue of Death bearing an hourglass brings chills to me everytime I think of it. What makes it truly frightening is that you can't see his face.

My modest church attire. I wore the same dress as the day before for the sake of continuity hahahahhaha no I didn't, I just thought I'd try wearing a top over it to make it look like a skirt.

Energised by the spiritual beauty and magic of St Peter's Basilica, I decided to tackle climbing the dome. One could pay €5 to climb all 500+ steps or do what I did and pay €7 to take a lift and then climb 300+ steps.

This is the easy part - coming out of the lift and looking down onto the church I was at only minutes before.

The difficult part is climbing the rest of the stairs. Not because they're quite steep, but because the corridors are especially narrow. I don't joke when I say you can't be morbidly obese to comfortably climb these stairs, although I did see an obese man make it to the top. I gave him a thumbs up. But as you reach the top of the dome which is essentially climbing around the inside of a ball, the ceilings curve and slant. You have to crouch and shuffle awkwardly up very narrow stairs with next to no air but for the occasional tiny window. It's certainly not for the claustrophobic.

One of the wider stairs.

When I finally got to the top, I frightened some Canadian tourists behind me: "What?! NO!" "What is it?!" "It's closed guys, we have to go back!" Cue horrified gasps before I said "Just kidding, we're here!"

The view was absolutely worth the climb though.

Religious or not, when you are in Rome I absolutely recommend devoting two days to visiting Vatican City. You could do all of it in one day if you have a lot of stamina, but personally I'm glad I split my visit into two. My advice is to book all your tickets online to save yourself the queueing, bring a bottle of water (you can refill it at the drinking fountains all over the city), wear flats, and go in with no expectations. That way when the beauty of it all hits you you'll be especially dazzled.


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