Thursday, June 16, 2011


I have been blessed to see two of our Popes in person; one I saw two times. Now, in Rome again, I was going to see Pope Benedict XVI. Dee’s archbishop in Anchorage wrote for tickets for us, and when we picked up our tickets we were told that we must be special because our tickets were for the area on the same level as the Pope. The audience was to begin at 10:30 a.m. I was excited and wide awake and ready to get up at 6 a.m., but remained quiet until shortly before 7 a.m. We arrived at St. Peter’s around 8:30 a.m., thanks to a taxi driver who was good, but kept me gasping with his near hits. No, those were not near misses, they were definitely near hits!

At St. Peter’s we went through security and passed thousands of people already there. Our seats were up on a dais close to the Pope. I put on my huge straw hat and sunscreen as the sun bore down. Some people had umbrellas up shielding them from the sun. We knew they knew they were going to have to lower those umbrellas when the Pope arrived. It got hotter and hotter. Several bishops came in along with their friends.

We saw a young priest enter with an older priest. The senior man went to the area closest to the Pope. The junior man came to our row looking for a seat. Apparently he was told the seats were all taken. He turned away dejected and went to the other side to sit where he could only see the back of the Pope’s head. There was an empty seat next to me, and Dee went over and brought him back. He was a young Cistercian who was the private secretary to the Abbott of the order who now sat near the Pope’s chair. I was delighted that he joined us because it gave Dee somebody else to talk to since she had exhausted the family from Texas on the other side of us. Just kidding...sorta!

And suddenly people at the front began standing, and like a wave, people in row after row stood and there in his Pope mobile was the Vicar of Christ himself. Pope Benedict XVI stood waving and smiling, and the applause broke out and didn’t stop. He went up and down row after row, and smiled as if he was as thrilled as we were. Maybe he was. Finally the car drove right up to the dais and the Pope walked to his chair. The readings began. They were about Sodom and Gomorrah. And then the Pope spoke about our society, and in so many words, apologized again for the abuse by some priests. Methinks he has apologized enough because every time he does several hundred false claimants reach for the phone to call Jeffrey Anderson or some other lowlife attorney for some spending money to the detriment of some innocent priests!

Greetings began in various languages. The Pope always added his own special message when the presenter finished speaking. There was one language that we could not identify. Dee said she knew the Pope was not going to speak in that language. Wrong! Ah, what a Pope we have!

I took a number of items to be blessed by the Pope and I was holding them in both hands. I was barely able to make the Sign of the Cross. But I was blessed along with my “family” which includes my family of broken priests, my “other parents” – Mama Gladys and Daddy Dougie, my sisters, and if Ebony had been here, she too would have gotten a blessing. Those items are very, very special and most will be given to my “family” members. Unfortunately I can only share prayer cards with my priests in prison.

It was a magical day even though there were thousands of pilgrims seated in St. Peter’s Square, and hundreds more standing around. Pope Benedict always has a serene expression on his face and when he smiles, his face seems to light up. An aura of holiness surrounds him. He appears to be a man of peace, and a man at peace. What a burden he carries. There is a room in the Vatican called the “Crying Room.” It is the room into which the Pope-designate goes to ponder the burden the cardinals have asked him to undertake – to guide the Roman Catholics of the world. He meditates and prays in this room. Then he dresses in his papal garb, and comes out to lead the Church. It is said that every man has come out of that room in tears. I can understand why.

The first pope I saw was Pope Paul VI who visited the United Nations in 1965. He requested a special audience with the common folk, i.e., clerical staff and others who were not members of a diplomatic delegation to the UN. I was thrilled until I learned that each office would have a certain number of tickets allotted, and we would have to draw for a ticket. My boss was the head of two departments: Archives and Records Retirement. I was the only Catholic in my office, and I desperately wanted to win a ticket. Shortly after the drawing, my boss’ secretary from Archives called me. Frieda was Jewish. She said, “Charlene, I just drew a ticket to see the Pope. I want to see him, but I know it would mean so much to you to hear him, so I want to give you my ticket.” What an offer! I was overwhelmed, but I was able to tell Frieda that I too had drawn a ticket. She rejoiced with me, and together, the two of us, a Catholic and a Jew, attended the special meeting sought by Pope Paul VI. She was as excited as I was to see and hear the Pope. During his talk he told us that he brought each of us a present. I could hardly wait to receive my present.

After two weeks and no present, I called the office of the Secretary-General to ask about it. I was told that the presents would be given out shortly. I waited another two weeks and I called again. This time I said I was going to contact the Pope and tell him the UN was not giving us our presents. And this time I was told the truth: the Pope had not brought enough medals for the staff, and they had to figure out a diplomat way to tell him, and then he had to have additional medals made. So they held onto the medals the Pope had brought with him, and waited for him to send the rest of them. I waited not exactly patiently, but I waited. And then came the day we received our presents!

Each bronze medal was nestled in a small, suede-like bag. It is about two inches in diameter. On one side of the medal is the Pope’s coat of arms and the words Paulus .VI. Pont. VI. UN.4.Oct.1965 [Paul VI Supreme Pontiff, United Nations, 4 October, 1965]. On the other side is a burning bush and the words “Amoris Alumna Pax,” student of love and peace. What a thrill it was for all of us at the UN to receive a bronze medal, a blessed gift from the Pope himself. I had my medal encased, and I now wear it around my neck on special occasions. It is one of my most precious possessions… a gift from a Pope, the Vicar of Christ.
Two years later I visited Rome for the first time enroute to East Pakistan for a two year UN assignment. I managed to get a ticket for an audience with Paul VI, and imagine my surprise to find myself in an audience of several thousands. It was still a treat to see the pontiff.

I have been blessed three times to see two different Popes. The one I yearned to see was Blessed Pope John Paul II. He was my favorite because he made everyone feel special, went everywhere, met all kinds of people, forgave his would-be killer, kissed the ground when he arrived in a country (how often I have wanted to do that in sheer relief at landing safely!), and everybody loved him, even people who were not Catholic. He suffered much before he died. He showed us how to die although few of us, if any, will die with thousands of people beneath our window praying for us, wanting us to remain with them, but knowing that God waited for him on the other side. Blessed John Paul almost gave his life for us. It was our Blessed Mother who took him in her arms that day and saved him. No, selfishly I didn’t want him to leave us, but he deserved to rest in peace with our Lord. I doubt that there will ever be another Pope with such a scintillating personality, deep spirituality, obvious joie de vivre, and who will be so loved, especially by the youth. In their words, “The Pope rocks!” High acclaim indeed.

Monday, June 6, 2011


When I told people that I was taking a cruise to Italy they immediately asked what cruise ship left from Indy. They doubted that my carrier of choice, Royal Caribbean, would cruise up or down our White River, the only body of water anywhere near us. They were right. We were going to arrive at our carrier in Ft. Lauderdale via the old Greyhound bus. My penchant for traveling by any mode except planes has just about done me in. My traveling companion, Dee, and I took a 22 plus hour bus trip to Ft. Lauderdale. The driving was fine, but getting off and on the bus got tiresome fast! It was get off for them to clean the bus, or get off because it’s a rest stop (then let me rest!), or get off to change buses (once in Atlanta).

We arrived safely in Florida. During check in at the hotel, Dee started talking to folks – as she is wont to do! - who were also going to Europe, on another ship. In our room Dee announced that the couple wanted us to go out to dinner with them. I grimaced, and said I was going to get a shower and climb into bed to rest. I felt that my clothes should be peeled off me, and I didn’t know if I should brush or shave my teeth. They felt fuzzy. I wanted no contact with anybody until I had a shower, bed, and some rest in order to regain my good humor which had been absent since I left home.

When Dee returned from dinner hours later, I was resting in bed and watching the news about the killing of Osama bin Laden. My last thought before I slept was: the bastard’s death raises the price on every American’s head. Next morning I was rested, but my mood had not improved. As we approached the pier we saw our ship - it dwarfed all the other ships. It was the Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas – a H U G E ship/city. This is a ship with cafes and shops along the Royal Promenade, a five-story theatre, an ice-skating rink, three-story dining room, a basketball court, etc.

The boarding went smoothly. I was recovering from a cold and checked the “yes” box on the ship’s form asking if one had a cold. A nurse was dispatched to take my temperature, check ears and nose, to be sure that I was not going to contaminate other passengers. On previous cruises I noticed that crew members were stationed at the doorway of all restaurants, to be sure that passengers entering would use the hand sanitizer. There were no crew members keeping watch this time, and most passengers used the sanitizers, but some simply walked by it.

Our stateroom was ready and I was ready for it. Still exhausted from the bus trip, I wanted to sleep for a week, but adventure awaited! There was no life jacket drill for which I was grateful. I usually just put the life jacket around my neck and wait for an attendant to get it hooked correctly. If I ever have to use one, methinks I’ll just go down with the ship. We met our cabin attendant, a delightful young man from Jamaica, and we began exploring our home city for the next 13 nights.

At dinner we met our tablemates, a delightful elderly couple from Finland who now live in Florida. They were going home for the summer. We had wonderful waiters as I’ve always experienced on Royal Caribbean. After dinner Dee and I hit the casino and the slot machines. We didn’t do too badly.

Up fairly early the next day, well, earlier than I’m accustomed to. Dee was ready to continue exploring. I quickly discovered that whenever we left our stateroom, we had to walk about a mile to get anywhere! Dee was positively giddy because of this unexpected – not to mention unwanted – opportunity for me to exercise. It seemed that everything was at the end of the ship where we were not, and we were in what they called the “middle.” There were a lot of activities and things to do, but they were all early in the morning. That eliminated them for me. On our third night there was a Welcome Reception, a photo op with the Captain of the ship, and champagne.

We met people – how could we not when Dee is determined to meet any and everybody in the vicinity, who pass by, stand in a line, or are on the elevator. In view of the bin Laden killing, I asked her to stop telling people that I am a retired U.S. diplomat. I pointed out that U.S. diplomats would be first on the hit list of bin Laden’s foot soldiers. As we sat sipping our champagne and chatting with a Canadian guy, she went into her usual monologue about my background. Her voice carries and she cannot speak softly. I noticed we had gotten the attention of a group at a nearby table. When we stood to leave one of the women called me over to ask if I really was a retired diplomat and where I had served. Sigh…

I dreaded going anywhere because I knew we would always encounter people, and Dee would start raving about my book and my background. I joke that she’s the best agent I never had. I do appreciate her help, but I had asked her before the trip to allow me to travel in peace. I don’t like being on display ALL the time – and it is ALL the time when I’m with her.

Via our ship’s newspaper, “The Compass,” we learned there was a Catholic priest onboard. We planned to attend his 8 a.m. Mass on Day 4. When our 7 a.m. wake-up call came, the ship was rocking like a cradle. We grabbed our Sea-Band wristbands to stop the motion sickness before it began, and went back to sleep.

Day 5 arrived and escargots were on the dinner menu as an appetizer and as a main course. I live for this on every Royal Caribbean cruise! I ordered snails for my appetizer and snails for my main dish. Dee ordered them as an appetizer. Hers arrived and she dived in. To her credit, she shared one with me. My mouth watered. What can I say? I love French food, especially escargots. Suddenly the head waiter came over and said to me, “I’m sorry, but all the escargots are gone.” Surely he jested. I sat there waiting for him to smile and to bring my escargots. He then said they had run out of snails because so many people ordered them. I was flabbergasted! Later I realized that Americans were in the minority on this ship, most of the passengers were Europeans and, of course, they would enjoy escargots. The waiter apologized profusely, but there was no consoling me. He said they would have snails the next evening. I didn’t believe him. He asked me to order something else, but I didn’t want anything else. He then brought me two coupes of large shrimp with cocktail sauce. I ate the six, and was sharing the other coupe when the head waiter placed before me two plates of escargots! I began beaming. He said he had searched high and low for those two plates. He had gone to all of the specialty restaurants to find them. He never had a more appreciative diner.

We finally got to Mass on Mother’s Day. It was celebrated by Fr. David Remy from the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee. Several hundred Catholics attended, and it was a lovely service with an excellent homily.

I forgot to attend the Welcome Back Party for previous RC guests. I was tired and simply forgot. I didn’t forget the next formal night which was the Captain’s Invitation-Only Reception where the champagne flowed. There was also a special invitation-only event to visit the ice-skating rink. We were told to “dress warmly.” As guests arrived, waiters walked around with trays of champagne, beer, red and white wine, and mixed drinks. Hors d’oeuvres were also available. There was a short talk by the Captain about the ice skating rink, and an introduction to some of their stars on ice. The Captain also shared some information about the newest RC ship which will be available in 2013. It will be another behemoth and will carry 5000 passengers (as opposed to our Navigator of the Seas which carried 3,000 passengers and over 1,000 crew. That means one will have to walk twice as far as we walked on this mammoth. I can hardly wait! We attended the ice show which was spectacular. Even with the rough seas, the skaters performed flawlessly!

Each night there was a performance in the theatre. There were singers, comedians, along with the RC dancers and singers. Wonderful performances. The only night I skipped the performance was the tribute to the Beatles. Sorry, I’m not a Beatles fan.

The Captain announced one day that the next morning at 6 a.m. we would see the Rock of Gibraltar. I woke up at 5 and again at 6. I could barely see the balcony. Back to sleep. Later we learned that the wrong information had been given out; it was the next day that we would see the Rock. Or whoever was up at 6 a.m. would see it.

The ship posted information that the train station in the port city of Civitavecchia was about “three blocks” from the ship. Because of the amount of luggage we had, we opted to take the shuttle bus to the train station to get the train for Rome. We rode for about 20 min. before reaching the train station. We passed one family walking, or trying to. I prayed that a taxi would drive by for them. Information in English was often incorrect or inaccurate. [We thought of offering our services to teach English to most of the crew who were lacking in English in exchange for free cruises. We’ve already selected the ports we want to visit.]

We arrived at the train station – all several hundreds of us - to get a train into Rome. Dee got in line to buy our tickets while I guarded the five pieces of luggage. She had warned me about gypsies and pickpockets so I was on guard. The tiny station was mobbed. With tickets in hand, we went out to the platform and stood for about 20 min. At that time word began circulating that our train would leave from the platform on the other side of the tracks. We had to descend a long flight of stairs and up a steep flight to the other platform. Dee pulled the two heaviest suitcases, and I had the others. Halfway down the steps my right arm gave out. Dee asked a man descending the stairs to help us. He did, and even took the bags up the stairs to the other side. We were so grateful. He would not hear of accepting any money from us. God bless him.

We hoped we were on the right platform. A Canadian couple wanted to help us but feared we could all be separated. More people arrived and pushed us further back on the platform. The Canadian couple protested loudly that the newcomers should get behind those who were there first. That fell on deaf ears. Finally the train arrived and we all crowded on. We managed to get ourselves and our suitcases into the tiny standing area between the cars, and there we stood. We could not move. More people jammed on. At some stations we refused to open the doors to allow others to even try to cram on. Two men we had to knock about to get on the train turned out to be quite helpful. I gave them hell earlier. They didn’t get angry, just said it was a crazy situation and if everybody (mainly me methinks!) remained calm, we would all be happier. Ha! At the Rome station they got our bags off first, and we parted with smiles and thanks.

We had finally arrived in the Eternal City. Look out, Pope Benedict, here we come!