Memories of Papa Luciani – Part 4

September 3, 1978 arrived. I went again to St. Peter’s and entered through the main doors. Back then, there was no visible security save a few Swiss Guards standing around. 

Inside the basilica that day were tables set up with vestments arranged for all the clergy who were to participate in the Pope’s installation. Men from all over the world were milling about. Short men, tall men, men from Africa, men from Europe, men from the Mideast and the Far East. I had already met the American cardinals and bishops present in Rome for the event, as they were roomed at the North American College and had given a press conference on our front lawn. The one person that still stands out in my memory, and I can still see him clearly in my mind’s eye, was the archbishop of Hanoi, North Vietnam. I believe his name was Archbishop Joseph Marie Trinh-nhu-Khuê. He was short of stature; perhaps 4 foot 10 inches tall. I had to ask who he was and was told he somehow was given permission from the Communist government to attend. He was very old, and he had a priest attending him. I couldn’t help but be struck by the universality of the Church so evidently displayed that day in that place.

I vested and was shown the processional cross. It was heavy. It also was old and the cross and corpus were loose. It tended to wiggle back and forth when I walked with it. “Can’t the Vatican afford a better one?” I thought. I don’t recall seeing Msgr. Noe that day; at least he paid no attention to me if he were there. There were several other men who were directing everyone, eventually forming a semblance of a double line. The basilica was rather dark; the light dim.

I stood at the head of the line, not being able to forget about how loose the cross felt attached to the pole on which it sat. “I hope it doesn’t fall off,” I thought.  After a considerable length of time, I was told it was time to start.

The doors opened onto the piazza. I stood there momentarily, stunned by the sight. Thousands of people in the piazza. The sun shining  brightly in the sky. The light was almost was blinding at first as my eyes struggled to adjust to the difference. I collected myself and began to walk into the light, just as I had practiced.

The cross held up. So did I.

I approached the altar, made a sharp left turn and placed the cross in the base. I made a decision on the spot to turn the cross slightly so the Pope would be able to see the corpus fully as he said Mass. Thus, it was put at a 45 degree angle. I descended the steps, went to the end of the empty chairs and began to walk between the first and second rows. To my immediate right were the King and Queen of Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark too I believe. Various other heads of state. I tried to not pay obvious attention, but I couldn’t help but realize that I would never again have a chance to be with so many so close to me.

When I arrived at the end of the row, I wanted to cross over to the opposite side of the altar to take my assigned seat, about 15 feet from the Pope’s chair. When I got to the end of the row, though, the bishops and others were steadily streaming toward the altar. “How am I to cross to the other side?” I wondered. I stood there paralyzed, knowing that cameras were rolling from all over filming this and I didn’t want to look as foolish as I was feeling at the moment.  I must have stood there 2 minutes when I heard an Italian whisper, “Che cosa stai facendo?” I noticed one of the men in cassock and surplus had leaned his head over next to mine.  I leaned my head over to his and said, “Devo andare lá” (I have to go over there.) gesturing ever so slightly with my head to my seat on the other side of the altar. “Non puoi farlo. Va dentro la basilica, vi passa, e poi prendi il tuo posto.” (You can’t do that. Go inside the basilica, pass through it and then take you place on the other side.)

And thus I did. I am convinced today that God wanted me to be in that predicament, for he was about to give me a papal experience I would never have had, should I have been able to follow the previous plan. An experience which I cannot forget.

About Deacon Bob

Moderator: Deacon Bob Yerhot of the Diocese of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota.
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