So I’m sitting inside the Vatican Museum, having lunch with Glenn Beck, his wife and the new Cardinals just appointed by Pope Benedict…
Wait, what? A Blaze reporter sitting inside the Vatican, lunching with the new Cardinals? That’s correct.
This weekend, I was chosen to be part of a secret mission that took Glenn Beck and a select group of Mercury Radio Arts employees to Rome and Greece. Before we get to the luncheon, let me share the experience of the ceremony where the Pope elevates Archbishops to the Consistory (the conclave that will elect the next Pope).
It’s rare that the city of Rome buzzes on a weekend morning. This Saturday was different, because this morning the Pope was consecrating twenty-two new Cardinals. Other than being elected Pope, becoming a Cardinal is the highest honor the Catholic Church can bestow upon a living member of its clergy. This past Saturday, 22 men received such an honor.
The crush of media, clergy and family members from all around the world would overwhelm the Vatican. Yellow ticket holders were told to be at St. Peter’s Square by 9am for a 9:30 start.
The smart pilgrims got there at 7:30 and packed the cathedral. We arrived as instructed, only to discover there was no room left inside.
(It should be noted that the V.I.P. blue ticket holders (Glenn and his wife) had no such problem. They just flashed their ducats and were escorted inside with almost no wait.)
Despite being relegated to sitting outside, we still had to fight a determined crowd of the faithful that included some very well-organized groups of nuns intent on getting a good seat near the two jumbo-trons erected for viewing the ceremony.
One guest with a red hat caught my eye and I had to take a snapshot of her. (She turned out to be an architect from New York City.)
At 10:20am, the bells of St. Peter's pealed, alerting Rome that the start of the ceremony was near. Promptly at 10:30 the video screens came to life with shots from inside the packed basilica.
The cameras panned across the 22 birettas (tri-cornered red caps) and gold rings waiting to be distributed by Pope Benedict.
A trumpeter sounded the alert that the Pope had arrived and the procession down the long aisle of St. Peter's had begun. At the age of 84, Benedict is not a spry man, and instead of walking to the altar, the Holy Father was wheeled along on a small platform.
Arriving at the front of the massive basilica, the Pope briefly knelt in prayer before the faithful. He was then assisted in climbing the winding staircase to the top level of the altar and took his place in a beautiful throne-like chair.
The ceremony was performed in Latin, complete with beautifully sung Gregorian Chants.
One by one, the new Cardinals were called before the Pope and given their new headgear, rings and scrolls marking their consecration.
In just over an hour, the Holy Father had elevated status of 22 archbishops to that of Cardinal. These men will be vital in the selection of the next Pope.
We exited the Vatican, but the day had just begun.
Leaving the Vatican and St. Peter's Basilica, Glenn and his wife surprised me with a ticket to the very special luncheon honoring the new Cardinals. And this was a luncheon not held at some catering hall in Rome. No sir. This very private affair was being held inside the Vatican Museum.
You did not have look far to see just how special this event was going to be.
Needless to say, the food was as spectacular as the surroundings.
Wait a second. Before we dive into the delightful cuisine, a prayer of thanks.
The surroundings, the food and especially the company could be accurately described as "divinely inspired."
If you are wondering how I ended up getting the nod for this primo assignment, it all goes back to 1989 and a Christmas Eve visit to the Vatican by Mr. Beck and me.
Twenty-three years earlier, Glenn and I were together in Rome over Christmas break. We were both working in morning radio, in different cities. Each year, Beck would dedicate a special series of holiday broadcasts to the American troops serving around the world. This year, he was set up on the aircraft carrier USS Bob Hope. I joined him in Rome for a week.
At the time, Glenn and I both qualified as “lapsed Catholics” and he was also in the middle of his sort of out-of-control phase. We spent much of our daylight hours seeing the sights of Rome.
Of course, we saw the Coliseum, the Vatican, the Vatican Museum, Sistine Chapel, Scala Santa and countless churches.
And at night, we drank and ate and drank. Every night.
On Christmas Eve, we were celebrating with a great deal of food and wine and we started feeling homesick. I looked at Glenn and slurred something along the lines of, “We should go to Midnight Mass at the Vatican!” Glenn agreed and within minutes we were pulling up to Vatican City. The crowds were lined up outside St. Peter’s, and it was only 9pm. We also noticed that everyone in line was holding tickets and there were large signs reading, “No ticket, no entrance.”
Not easily discouraged, we worked the long lines in search of "Extra tickets? Who's got extra tickets?" An American serviceman suggested that we start knocking on doors at the convents adjacent to St. Peter's. Off we went. In less than fifteen minutes, using bad high school Spanish I managed to finesse a pair of tickets into the Mass.
Glenn and I piled into the massive cathedral and grabbed two seats on the aisle. Two hours later, Pope John Paul II passed by and blessed us during the opening processional. At the time we joked that attending Midnight Mass in the Vatican on Christmas Eve and getting a "drive-by blessing" from the Pope was probably our Get Out Of Hell Free card. It wasn't.
However, our attendance was not overlooked.
The next day I called home to Chicago to share the exciting news with my very Catholic parents. Thanks to a seven hour time difference, mom and dad were regular watchers of Midnight Mass from the Vatican and had seen us standing as the TV cameras followed the the Pope up the aisle. My father's only comment: "Would it have killed you to wear a tie to the Vatican?"
This trip, I was much better prepared.
Since the 1989 trip, I have become attentive to my faith. (I still have miles to go to.) My wife and I were married in the Catholic Church in 1992 with Glenn standing beside me as my best man.
Returning to the Vatican over twenty years after that first visit has been nothing short of awe-inspiring. And I feel compelled to admit being overwhelmed to the point feeling it rain on my face more than once during our luncheon. It won't be another 22 years before I get back to Rome.