Suddenly, the Pope’s visit became the talk of the town. The Divine Love Congress had been scheduled to be held in Bombay from 24 November to 6 December. People started thronging to Bombay from all parts of India. Though miles away, call of the pontiff dwarfed the distance. Obviously Mannanam too had its reverberations, being the centre of the Mary Immaculate Congregation. Initial plans to send a big entourage soon petered out. So, people decided to undertake the tour individually. One among this enthusiastic lot was my dad. He had company in Fr. Plakkutti Kunjukutty, famous, at that time, for Bible binding works. Naturally it was news, one of the duos being a non- Christian. Turlin fabrics were the latest fad. Accordingly, they bought two turlin shirts apiece and proceeded .What happened in Bombay is not quite known. But when the tour party returned, an expert sleuth named Sukumar Bose, who happens to be my younger brother as well, unearthed a couple of brand new pants from dad’s brief-case. Catch! Hmmm the erstwhile simple man who wore nothing but white dhoti and white shirt in Mannanam had other ideas for the metropolis! On return, he had certain new wishes too; the prime one on the cards being a visit to the papal abode itself –Rome. The call from the heavens disrupted that plan. Instead, providence was upon me. As they say, everything is in a continuum.
I was to attend the UN summit on housing at Istanbul as the Secretary General’s special guest , since they had selected Nirmithi Kendra as the best model in housing . My wife Lakshmi and I were all set to go. But there was a late minute change in the summit’s schedule. So, we decided to visit Rome in the brief interim we had. But then, where would we stay there? Could we be able to see the Pope? I contacted the CMI monastery in Mannanam. We were lucky. Not only that they had their central office in Rome, Fr. Luke who was the charge d’affairs, on hearing our wish was elated to be our host as well. His assurance gave me a sense of security. For, while in Rome you can be a Roman all right, till the real Roman is at your arm’s length.
On board the flight to Rome, Lakshmi asked me whether we should go ahead or get down. She showed me a book-let which a non-Indian family sitting next to us had given her: ‘ essentials a visitor to Rome needs to know’ . It was interesting read: do not bring any valuables; wear cheap watches ,cheap not just in price but in looks as well; beware of wayside gentlemen who come in pairs – by the time you try to answer one guy’s polite query, the other would have parted off with your luggage ; a more warm reception would be from boy-gangs that leave you with just your skeleton in case you have one; call for help at first sight itself , if no help comes in just flee; and If some bikers come in pairs, do not forget to say your prayers. If you take care of these things, your visit to Rome will be a happy one. Quite essential an advice that! If you get your head freed, it is easy to wear the hat.
Getting down from the flight, we could see a Roman with a placard bearing our names. Might be Fr. Luke’s envoy, I guessed. We followed him to a waiting car, parked a little farther from the usual parking area. Suspicion bell started ringing. We asked him about Fr. Luke. He didn’t know him. He informed us that the car was being sent from the Indian embassy by my diplomat friend A. Gopinath (who later became India’s ambassador to the UN). If so, what about Fr. Luke? We decided to go back to the arrival area in search of him. But our luggage had already been put into the car. ‘’No problem,’’ the Roman guy said, ’’ I’ll take care of them.’’ Our suspicion escalated; could this be another mafia ploy? Lakshmi broke the jinx. ‘’ If the luggage is stolen let it be. If anything, we have the passports and traveler’s cheques with us.’’ she said. Leaving the suspect we walked to the arrival area. Fr. Luke was there waiting for us. He took us to the house of priests, depriving us of the privilege of having an encounter with the Italian mafia. Still, surprise awaited us in another form: An audience with the Pope, the very next day!
Vatican was flooded with people from various parts of the globe. Cordial and gentle guards of the city-state took us through them all to the seats reserved for us – courtesy: Fr. Luke. A few moments of wait and the papal mobile entourage bearing the pontiff could be seen from a distance. John Paul was waving his hands in blessing to the phalanx, reflecting the sanctity of St. Peter’s throne and the grandeur of the biggest church of them all. His peaceful face was gradually getting clearer to us. Blessing one and all, he graced the grand square of St. Peter’s Basilica. Alighting adagio from the entourage, the Pope took his seat accompanied by the cardinals. He spoke in many languages, greeting the diverse gathering. Afterwards, it was time for meeting in person for the appointed few. Fr. Luke introduced us to him. A few months before he had been to Kerala to venerate Fr. Chaavara Kuriakkose and Mother Alphonsa. I told him with pride that I hail from the former’s village. Lakshmi was spell-bound, yet to come to terms with the simply awesome experience. The Pope blessed us and the prayer-bead we carried to him. Next we had a photo-op with him.
The Pope apart, the greatest sight in Vatican is undoubtedly the St. Peter’s Basilica. So majestic and magnificent that the biggest cathedral on earth perfectly suits the papal capital. “’ Peter, thee rock, And I’ll raise my church upon thee.” The Basilica’s founding can figuratively be attributed to this proclamation by Jesus. Initially it was built at the burial site of Peter. The present one‘s construction got underway during the reign of emperor Constantine and the consecration was done by Pope Sylvester in 326 CE. In between, there had been many a seismic activity in Roman politics. Even the papal abode was forced to shift its locale to Avignon in France. Once the turbulence settled down, it was brought back and discussions began on constructing a new basilica that epitomizes the Catholic Church’s epochal grandeur. In 1452 C.E, Pope Nicholas entrusted the work with Bernard Rossellino. But he could not complete it and the work stagnated for another half a century. Afterwards, Pope Julius –II commissioned the master architect Donato Bramante. He too met with Rosselini’s ill-fate. The Basilica’s construction went on and on as if to encompass the architectural talent of several generations. After Bramante, the mission had artistic greats like Raphael, Baldassare Peruzzi , Fra Giocondo, Verona, Antonio da Sangallo, Michelangelo, Vignola, Giocomo dellaporta, Domenico Fontana, Carlo Madeno, Gian Lorenzo Bernini… the list sounds like the who’s who of Italian art. The legendary Michelangelo too succumbed to the fatal fate of others in the list. Though he envisaged and designed the exquisitely beautiful dome atop, it needed another great talent and his arduous labour to complete the task—Fontana. Same was the case with Madeno who could construct the porch and nothing further. Thus St. Peter’ Basilica sprawling in 21,477 square metres with 11 domes, 44 altars, 135 mosaic panels, 395 sculptures and 778 carved pillars owes its immortal grandeur to generations of human artistry and perseverance.
Without a word on the Pieta, any description of the Basilica would be soulless. The monument of monuments in Vatican, this eternal masterpiece haunts you for life—heart-wrenching sorrow molten into a mother with the lifeless body of Jesus. When it was installed, people would come in flocks and marvel at this talcum wonder. Everyone would ask a common question, ‘’who’s its creator?’’ And would hear the same name again and again: Ilobo. Hearing this, one day a young man in the crowd was shell-shocked. The patent of his artistic genius had simply gone to someone else! He could not sleep that night. In the dying hours of the night, he entered the Basilica with a chisel and engraved on the shawl befalling the mother: MICHELANGELO BONAROTTI.
Pops had generally been soft and benevolent, some getting elevated to the grade of saints even. Thus Francis became the symbol of simplicity, Benedict- XVI was so ascetic that he relinquished the throne. However, wily jackals too occupy the holy list. For instance, Sextus-V. It was customary during those years to select ageing cardinals for the papacy. The selection process round the corner, cardinal Sextus approached the deciding cardinals, leaning on a walking stick with geriatric gestures and wavering steps. The unsuspecting cardinals voted him to the throne. Hearing the news, Sextus is reported to have thrown away the stick in elation and it hit the roof! Julius-II was witty and art-loving. Artists in Rome would present their works to the Pope, first. He would sign on them along with a biblical quote. A moderately talented one came with the Pope’s picture on his canvass. Julius was amused as the drawing did not have much of a resemblance with him. Still he did not disappoint the artist. Recollecting the Galilee anecdote in the Bible wherein Jesus straightaway walked over the raging waves to the ship-wrecked disciples and said, ‘’don’t bother, it’s me’’ , Julius scribbled on the canvass: ‘’don’t bother, It’s me!’’
Cardinal Alancherry was getting felicitated the other day, at the Supreme Court judge Cyriac Thomas’s bungalow in New Delhi. I too was a speaker on the occasion. The cardinal cracked a story. A romantic couple reached paradise before they could tie the knot on earth. Peter allotted them separate rooms with a promise to conduct their wedding soon. As years passed by and the ceremony still pending, the couple complained to Peter. He said, ‘’see, not a single priest has come to paradise for years. How can we conduct the nuptial rites?’’ The couple asked, ‘’ what about some bishops, then?’’ Peter replied regretfully: ‘’ those tribes do not come this way, at all.’’