I as inconspicuously as possible turned to my right and made a fairly large loop around the Swiss Guard, the cameramen and various others who were standing to the right of the basilica. I was able to enter into the section of St. Peter’s that precedes the Porta Sancta and wanted to speed into the beginnings of the interior of the basilica. After having escaped any area that I knew would be televised or filmed, I was intent on running, if necessary to the far door, out the other end of St. Peter’s and somehow get by the Swiss Guard and the scores of vested priests now seated in their places, and take up my post.
When, though, I entered the first area, before the Porta Sancta, I suddenly stopped. There was the pope. With mitre and crosier, he too had stopped. I could have run into him.
He was smiling. There was a light all of a sudden, a bright light. In the darkness of the basilica, a light was penetrating the darkness and shining on the pope. The light came from the outside, from the crowd, from the Church gathered, waiting for him. It engulfed him. It was as if a spotlight had suddenly been switched on. He, again, was smiling, but the smile seemed one of acceptance if not reluctance…. perhaps not joy. After a minute or so, he bowed his head, moved his crosier forward one length and took a step toward the people assembled and waiting for him.
I was stunned and motionless. I suppose many will give a rational explanation, but I believe God was allowing me to see something no one else that day saw. It was just me, and him. No one else was there, save the two cardinals flanking him who were outside of the light.
I do not recall exactly what happened next. I do remember him going out, giving me the opportunity of move across and eventually getting my chair.
The Mass of Installation began. My memory of all the rest is incomplete. I do recall Papa Luciani beginning his homily in Latin. I thought, “Will he take the Church back to the Latin?” His mitre was very tall and ornate, I remember, which reinforced in my mind that maybe Luciani would be a conservative pope. After a couple of minutes though, he switched to Italian, which I could understand for the most part. I sat there, looking and watching. Bishop after bishop, cardinal after cardinal came up, knelt before him and kissed his ring. It took a very long time, yet he seemed genuinely happy to see them. The choir kept up the refrain, “Tu es Petrus, et superam petram aedificabo, ecclesiam meam!” Over and over again. I recall the deacon for the Mass too. A bearded man of an Eastern Rite Church, bringing the Book of the Gospels after proclaiming it to the people to the pope for him to reverence. The deacon kissed the pope’s hands as he gave him the Gospels, and Luciani blessed us with it.
As the Mass continued, the light began to diminish. It was getting dark. Those in charge switched on the spotlights ringing the piazza, but it was still rather dim. Those spotlights were not even a tenth of the brilliance of the light that I had seen surround the pope before he exited the basilica. It was getting difficult to see. I remember thinking, “How strange. Has the Mass gone longer than they anticipated? Had no one thought ahead about adequate illumination? Surely, they were aware of the time of sunset.”
At the end of the Mass, after processing out, I and many others were told to gather around for the pope would come to greet us. He did just that. He stood in the midst of us, obviously tired, exhausted looking actually, but smiling, and gave us his blessing. We applauded him warmly. He quickly exited. That was to be the last time I saw him alive. (If you go to the Vatican’s website, click on Pope John Paul I’s history and then go to the page of photographs of him, you will find a picture of him blessing us after the Mass. A few weeks after his death, I went from photography shop to photography shop in Rome, sorting through loose photos they had taken that day. I found two that I bought. One is of me, standing at the end of the row of empty chairs with my head cocked toward the priest who had his head leaned over to mine and saying, “What are you doing?” The photo was taken at that moment. The second is of me and other sitting in our chairs during the Mass.)
Finally, as a token of thanks from Msgr. Noe, we were allowed to enter behind the protective glass surrounding the Pietá and touch Mary’s hand and the body of Jesus.
I went home that night, very tired and knowing I had to jump a train early the next day to Germany and the US Army.
Little did I know that within a month, I would be coming back for Luciani’s funeral.