Dear Switchback fans,
Some years ago, when visiting my brother Tony in Decatur, Illinois, he put Brian and me up to a dare. Having just returned from a Catholic retreat in Jackson, Wyoming, Tony noted that both Brian and I grew up playing Catholic Masses and he thought that we should consider writing one.
This suggestion was sort of delayed and postponed, but not rebuffed, because both Brian and I owed a lot of our musical upbringing to playing those Masses. Back in the early days, when we were playing clubs, we would finish a club around 2 a.m. I would get home about an hour later and then wake up to drive out to Oak Park, Illinois and play the 9 a.m. Mass. Brian would be there and we would both be bleary-eyed as we stumbled up to the choir. I would open my bass case and out would waft the disconcerting smell of cigarette smoke from the night before.
We played those morning Masses for a lot of reasons. Mainly because it was good to play. It was something that, being Irish Catholics, was sort of hot-wired into our systems. And, it allowed us to grow musically while expiating some sins along the way.
Eventually we took up my brother’s dare and wrote a Mass to be performed by the choir at St. Edmund’s parish in Oak Park. It wasn't too long before we decided to write an Irish Mass after performing at the Michigan Irish Music Festival and later at the Des Moines Hibernian gathering at the Old Irish Settlement. As musicians, we found it a bit of a challenge to write a Mass. For one reason, there are certain parts of the service where one cannot deviate from the words. The Gloria for example, is probably one of the most difficult assortments of words ever to which music must be applied. The English, taken from the Latin, is not smooth and flowing. So to create something that would feel beautiful (and accessible to a congregation) to sing, while taking care of the words, was rewarding.
We have since written several Masses and have had them performed by choirs and done by ourselves for various churches (not all Catholic, either!) across the country (plus one performance in Pompeii, Italy in 2010).
When my wife suggested that we go to Rome to attend a conference for Serra International, the Catholic nonprofit she works for, I was surprised to hear that there was the chance we would meet the Pope. I basically thought that meeting the Pope would be meeting the Pope in a crowd of a lot of people. The last Pope I saw, John Paul II, was with a million other people at Grant Park in Chicago back in 1979. He was a minuscule and inaccessible figure from where I was standing. And I got harassed by a policeman who in turn got lambasted by my sainted mother (that's another story for another day).
Still, I thought that it would be amazing if Áine could see the Pope. And just in case I would be closer than a million people, I would bring along a Hibernian Mass CD. I imagined I could pass it to him through one of the Swiss guards.
Before we came over to Italy, we had to explain to Áine who Papa Francesco is. Annie told her, "He's dressed all in white and he is sort of like a superhero and Santa Claus” which I thought was pretty funny and accurate at the same time.
The day came for seeing the Pope and I was amazed. Still jetlagged, we got up early to board buses to Vatican City. Around 10 a.m., we gathered for Mass in St. Peter’s behind the big altar (the iconic Altare della Cattedra by Bernini), in the area where most people do not get to go. And here I was in a place that I probably will never get to stand or sit in for the rest of my life. It felt very strange but thrilling at the same time.
There were 40 elite people who were selected to personally meet the Holy Father, but I was happy to be with the other 500+ people in the crowd.
After Mass, our large group left St. Peter’s and headed over to the Aula Paolo VI, a large hall for private papal audiences. Up ahead were two Swiss guards with halberds at their sides, marching away from us. It felt like I had stepped back into another time. When we entered the hall it was warm (every day in Rome during our stay was over 90 degrees F) and cheerfully lit thanks to the arched skylight that made up most of the roof. At the back of the stage was a modern, rather abstract bronze sculpture of the resurrection of Christ. I thought it would be pretty weird for Christ to return and see what people thought He looked like.
Once again we filed in and sat down, waiting for the Pope to arrive. Television cameras were set up and photographers were at the ready. Slowly some cardinals came filing in, as well as some sort of Vatican orderlies dressed in grey morning coats. Plain-clothes as well as uniformed police mingled with some Swiss guards, but we had been screened prior to coming into St. Peter’s and the atmosphere was pretty electric. From her purse, Annie produced not only a Japanese fan but also a juice box and snack for Aine, who played with a parish musical director from Omaha who sat next to us.
About 20 minutes after the noon appointment time, those two Swiss guards with their halberds came walking into the room. They flanked both sides of a big chair set up in front and snapped to attention. And then, into the room walked Pope Francis. Everyone started applauding and taking pictures. After some brief introductory remarks from the Italian president of Annie's organization, the Pope gave a short address in Italian, for which unfortunately no translation was provided to us mono-lingual Americans, but here and there, he paused and made a point. I could sense from the tone, he was being gentle, but sincere in the address and the many Italians in the audience who could understand him politely applauded here and there. It didn’t matter too much as it all felt fairly surreal.
For me, being a Catholic, I was witnessing the most recent in an unbroken line of successors of St. Peter. Sure, the line got wobbly and downright erratic from time to time, but still, that line remained unbroken for almost 2000 years. And here was a pretty decent guy to boot, I thought.
Finally, the Pope walked down from the stage to shake the hands of the selected people while the rest of us waved a bit and raised our smart devices overhead to capture some pictures. I hoisted Áine up on my shoulder and brought her over to the barricade to get a better view. Annie stayed behind. Perhaps, I thought, the Pope might walk over to everyone else and Áine could receive a special blessing. A guard spotted her in her bright coral dress and motioned to me. He told me in broken English to "Get to the center of the room.” I realized he was asking us to move to where the main aisle of the hall was, to get out of the group! So, I started moving through the other hundreds of people crowding forward.
I called to Annie, “Come on, I think Áine is going to get to meet the Pope!” As we made our way to the center aisle, Annie yelled at me to adjust Áine’s dress which had migrated up over her underwear as we waded through our fellow Pope admirers. As we threaded our way through the throng, I kept looking over at the Pontiff who was working down the line of those 40 “golden ticket” folks. It was sort of a race of me against the Pope to see who was going to get down to the end of the line first. I made it to the center aisle of the hall and a serious-looking guard looked at me.
“You are going to meet the Pope, with baby,” he said.
“OK,” I said.
The guy started to undo the barrier so Áine and I could enter.
“Wait,” another guard said as Annie caught up. “You are the mother?”
“Yes,” she replied.
“You all go see the Pope,” the guard said. He opened the divider and let us through. And you know, the folks who were around us were delighted for us, but mainly for Áine. They applauded and I was totally in shock.
We got in line -- we were the very end of the line, in fact -- and there, larger than life, or at least larger than St. J2P2 (as we Star Wars-struck kids called John Paul II) in Grant Park, was my hero, the Pope I had been praying for, the Pope who was a Jesuit priest, who, like me, was educated by Jesuits, the Pope who lives in a regular apartment, wears regular shoes, and who likes to sneak out of the Vatican in regular priest garb and walk among his fellow humans. That guy. Francis.
He came over to where we were and I shook his hand. I gave him the Hibernian Mass CD.
“Here is a Mass that I wrote,” I said.
He looked at it smiling. He then looked at me and said, “Thank you.”
His aide, a German cardinal, smiled and took the CD. “Are you German?” he said, smiling at me. “No, um, Irish American,” I stammered.
Pope Francis didn’t move. He smiled and Áine smiled back at him. Despite her smile, she also seemed a bit overwhelmed.
“This is my daughter, Áine,” I said.
Pope Francis touched and kissed her cheek.
Then Áine leaned over and planted a big kiss on Pope Francis.
He smiled and laughed a little. Áine, usually such a gregarious toddler, remained pretty serious; much more aware, perhaps, of the gravity of having kissed a superhero Santa than her Poppa giving a CD from Uncle Brian’s and Poppa’s band.
“My wife, Anne,” I said. And Annie shook the Pope’s hand and said how wonderful it was to meet him.
He didn’t say too much in English. It was mainly smiles and gestures. Later Annie and I would discuss the things we would have liked to have said to Pope Francis but which evaporated when we, starstruck, actually met him -- something we had both fantasized about but which we didn't think would actually happen.
He moved on to wave to the crowd before retreating once again behind the stage.
Like that, it was over. But the enormity of that minute or two in front of him came through days later.
I held the Pope’s hand, I thought. I met a real hero. My daughter and wife met the Pope. My daughter can tell people years from now she kissed the Pope. She will be forever changed and it will be an awkward high school prom years from now when I pull out the Pope pictures and place them in front of her date.
And that CD. That representation of years of Brian and me waking up early from a late night and heading over to church. The desire to give back something and somehow bring honor to those people who have played in the church choirs with us. Now, I optimistically imagine it in the Pope’s CD collection.
Maybe, just maybe, he will sneak out of the Vatican on an early morning. Fire up his tiny Fiat and go driving a bit. As he wends his way out into the Italian countryside, far from the frenzy that is Rome, maybe he will stick that Hibernian Mass in the CD player and sing along a bit to the "Holy Saints of Ireland."
Yeah, that’s my Francis.