The day after Luciani’s election was a Sunday, so as was my custom, I hiked down to St. Peter’s for the noon Angelus and to hear the new pope speak. I was standing in the crowd as he began that famous, and it would seem, extemporaneous discourse which began, “Ieri mattina, io sono andato alla Sistina a votare, tranquillamente. Mai avrei imaginato che cose stava per succedere!” For the first time, I was anything but disappointed in our new Holy Father. You couldn’t help but like him. He spoke like a father to his children. He spoke simply, honestly, and personally. Anyone who knew Italian, regardless of age, could understand him and we got a glimpse into his heart. And his voice….. still rather high in pitch, but with a strength not heard before. Whereas the day before he seemed deferential to Msgr. Noe on others around him in the loggia, that day he was asserting himself. (Watch the video of this talk, and how he was focused on the crowd, not the men around him.)
I was happy. He conveyed happiness.
The next few days were busy getting ready to go to Mannheim, Germany and the U.S. Army base there. I had made a commitment to Lt. Colonel Joseph Graves, who was the post chaplain, that I would assist him throughout the month of September. I was to report by September 1, and had every intention to do so.
Our house received a message from Msgr. Virgilio Noe, the master of ceremonies for papal events. He wanted four Americans to serve as acolytes for what at the time we thought would be the Mass in which Luciani would be enthroned and given the tiara. Other colleges throughout the city were being asked to volunteer a man or two also. This caused quite a stir among us. Who would go? We eventually put our names in a hat and drew out 4 slips of paper. My name was on one of them.
The date for the Mass was September 3rd. I knew I was going to be late for the Army. I called Fr. Graves and told him I wouldn’t be showing up until September 5. He was not pleased. You don’t not show up on time for an Army assignment. It is called being AWOL if you are an enlisted man. I wasn’t though, so I pled my case knowing that regardless of his reaction, I was going to serve this pope’s Mass. I more or less told him so, and he agreed to pick me up at the train station on the 5th. He never brought it up to me again.
I had to go out and buy a black clerical shirt. In the 70s, seminarians seldom wore the collar until ordination to the diaconate. It is different now, as it seems to be the house dress at the North American College. But I knew that if I were to have anything to do with a Vatican ceremony, the Roman collar is needed. It gets you into the confines of the Vatican walls. The Swiss Guards will salute as you enter, not stop and question you. And I wanted to make a good impression on Msgr. Noe, who was clearly in charge of the arrangements for the Mass.