True story. I went to Rome. Strolled into Vatican City and bumped into the Pope. It makes a great dinner table conversation. It happened like this:
Me and the boy decided to take a holiday the weekend before Christmas to celebrate our respective birthdays. A shared love for Italian food and Roman ruins decided the destination and when we found a great offer on Easyjet Holidays for flights and 3 nights at a 4 star hotel for £200 it was a done deal.
Our room had a terrace on 2 sides which overlooked the Vatican and that iconic Rome dome – St Peter’s Basilica. Despite being late December it was temperate enough to sit outside on the terrace and enjoy a glass of red wine. At dusk we decided to take a stroll into the Vatican to get our first taste of the epic architectural sights that were to come over the weekend. There was hardly anyone around, or so it seemed. The guidebook informed us that the Basilica would be closing to the public in 30 minutes but we decided to duck in and have a quick peek as there was no queue.
We weaved back and forth through the barriers that had been laid out to contain the crowds who were not there. After a brief security check we found ourselves in the entrance hall of the Basilica. After marvelling at the ceiling of the entrance for some time we decided to go in.
“Tickets?” said the burly security guard on the door.
“No?”, said a confused I. How had we come this far if you needed tickets?
“Then no entrance today.”
Gutted that we had decided to rock up the Basilica on the one day it was not accepting tourists for free we turned around and prepared to leave. Taking one last shot of the exterior I noticed that some people seemed to be entering the church without showing tickets via a side entrance, and that there was a far less burly security guard on this door. After a quick discussion between ourselves on whether the Vatican had its own prison or not we decided it was worth the risk and walked confidently towards the side entrance. The guard said nothing. We were in!
Once inside we discovered that a rather large mass was taking place, for which all the thousands of people inside had bought tickets for. We were in a cordoned off area to the side of the pews, an area set aside for confession! Four priests sat behind wooden divisions, a printed sign attached to the pillars above their heads screamed ‘CONFESSIONE‘. I reached for my camera phone and attempted to discreetly take photos of the Basilica’s interior whilst acting as if I was preparing to absolve myself of my sins.
I had walked half the length of the church and still could not see what was happening on the altar. Not wanting to out-stay our welcome we prepared to leave and headed back towards the door. Suddenly the mass appeared to be over and whoever had been hosting it was proceeding down the central aisle, directly towards us intruders lurking nervously at the door. The crowd were applauding now, abandoning their pious positions on the pews to crane their heads into the aisle. They were getting their camera phones out and snapping away like crazy.
“It can’t be… can it?” I thought.
Not entirely sure of what was happening I held my camera phone high in the air and pointed it towards whatever was causing such a fuss in the aisle. I bought it back down to my face but a crowd of people who had appeared from nowhere were jostling into me, trying to take my accidentally discovered prime position. And then I saw it. A gold crucifix being held high in the air and a man in a very big hat.
I turned to the boy and giggled nervously. We had just snuck into mass with the Pope on his home turf and now he was right in front of us. The hands down winner of ‘Most surreal moment of the year’.