February or March 1973

My sister and I, aged 19 and 21, had packed rucksacks (mine a borrowed army green canvas one covered with embroidered patches of faraway cities and countries boasting of my boyfriend's considerable Foreign Service family travels) and taken off on the great Eurailpass and hostel adventure through Europe both coveted and a cliché for American young adults.

We had been on our sojourn about a month, having started our travels in chilly Northern Europe beleaguered with runny noses and ears that still hadn't popped from our flight. So we took an overnight train to Italy to escape the cold. Neither of us had a bit of street sense or sophistication. We wandered through Europe with no agenda, no understanding in advance of where we were stumbling and our eyes wide open in astonishment at the education we were getting simply by being strangers in strange lands. We read no newspapers or sought out schedules of events - not by intent, we just didn't think about it.

In Rome we ambled into St. Peter's with our lunch in plastic shopping bags - already ubiquitous in Europe but not seen in the US - ready for a picnic after our visit to the cathedral. We wandered through St. Peter's, pausing to wonder at Michelangelo's poor draped Pieta, damaged by a madman with a hammer a year before, then continuing on to dutifully explore each alter, sculpture, painting, architectural detail in this enormous homage to Catholic piety. There were very few people in the cathedral. It was quiet and calm. We had done a very good job exploring St. Peter's working hard to ignorantly appreciate the Renaissance splendor and were heading to the exit when men came in with lighting equipment and began to set up.

When they were finished, the cathedral doors opened to a sudden flood of people, many of them nuns in traditional habits still worn in 1973. This crush of humanity overtook and separated us and we were enveloped in the crowd so tightly packed that our arms laden with our picnic were unable to budge and we were terrified at the possibility of falling and being trampled in the insanity of the crowd. There was no apparent reason for the crowd and caught as we were we could only stand there dumbstruck at the ready for our fate, facing, with the crowd, in the direction of the Pieta. The nuns began wildly shaking their rosaries over their heads and the crowd inched further, tightening impossibly around us as a new group of official looking people appeared between the crowd and the veiled Pieta.


With that appearance and ever more frantic shaking of rosaries and squishing of bodies and to our ever more astonishment, came……… the Pope! Pope Paul VI stood at a lectern right there in front of Michelangelo's masterwork and no more than 50 feet from where we stood in a crowd now so tightly packed it moved and breathed as one body. The Pope addressed us and blessed the draped marble beauty. Then, even more astounding, the drapes were removed revealing the restored perfection of the Pieta. Pope Paul VI blessed the crowd and departed and as he did the body of the crowd exhaled and we were released from its frenzy. We took our turn reverently passing as close as the bullet proof glass would allow to admire the polished marble perfection whose blemish had made the world ache, before heading out for our picnic.

For my sister and me the Pieta would never be so little as an astonishing demonstration of the genius of Michelangelo, of a hunk of stone made flesh and poignant. It is rather an event of religious fervor, of triumph over pain, of artistic brilliance and the serendipity and sheer dumb luck of being in the right place at an astonishing moment in time.

Jean McGavin Connecticut, USA

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