I know everyone has already posted about Pope Benedict's resignation at the end of this month, but I wanted to take the time to write down why this news was such a shock for me, personally. I have come to understand his decision, mostly with the help of wise and insightful blogs and articles, pointing out the humility and courage of such a decision, and the example he is giving the church and I admire him so much for it. And of course we are all sad he is leaving. I don't have any "claim" over him, I am a fellow member of the church and a part of the body of Christ. This effects all of us. But I have a rather rare experience to share from college, that I continue to marvel over, and is the reason why I feel a bond with Papa B.
In the spring of 2005, I headed off to Rome with 27 other juniors from my class at Christendom for the school's study abroad program. Of course, that happened to be the spring that JPII passed away and Pope Benedict was elected. Those events were life changing for me. It was incredible to be there, to say goodbye to one beloved holy father and welcome the next. I got to see JPII when his body was laid in state in the basilica (his wake essentially) and attend the holy father's funeral. That needs to be an entire blog post of it's own in order to do it justice. The whole experience was one of the most moving of my life.
So, having said farewell, it was time for the cardinals to elect a new pope. During the conclave, our professors were awesome and let us adopt a sort of conclave schedule for classes. Meaning, anytime we found out smoke was about to go up, we dropped everything and rushed down to the square. I'll never forget, we were hanging out studying for our Italian finals in St. Peter's square when the smoke went up...."it's gray, no, I think it's white, is that white smoke? I think it's white....it's white!! we have a pope!!!" And we began jumping up and down and cheering. After the Holy Father is elected, he is immediately lead to what is called "The Room of Tears" to take some time to let what has just happened sink in. Then some time later, he comes out onto the balcony to greet the church as pope! At this time, no one knows who it is. We were there when they announced his name, and he came out. We could not contain our excitement. Our Italian teacher, Madre Tayler, was right next to me, translating for us, and cheering as loudly as the rest of us. All the cardinals were on the balconies to either side of him and I was struck with the beauty of their brotherhood, joy and pride for their new Holy Father. Pope Benedict's words were brief, asking us mostly to pray for him.
That night we celebrated on the roof of our hotel and a few of us went down one by one to take our oral italian final. Our teacher lived in Florence with her religious community and she would commute and stay for two days. Since she was leaving in the morning and because we had been at St. Peter's, we didn't get our exams done. So some of us had to take the exam that night and some in the morning. I had some wine in me, but I figured why not?! haha, it helped calm me and I knew Madre was in a really good mood due to Pope Benedict's election and I needed that on my side! She passed me, it was close, but she did :)
A few days later, we got to attend his inaguration Mass which was beautiful. And it was at this Mass, that a classmate of mine met the Swiss Guard who was nearest her. I was told she was flirting rather shamelessly with him. She came back to our hotel and told all of us she had met a swiss guard and he was going to meet up with us for drinks that night and bring some of his friends. We didn't really believe her. But sure enough, that night we had two swiss guards hanging out with our group. I do want to say here that I was not one of those girls who swooned over the guards. I was even semi irked by the girls who did. It was not that I didn't respect them, I did, very much, but I thought it was silly the way some girls acted toward them and even wrote about it in an email back to my mom saying I didn't get what the big deal was. But a few of the girls I was sitting with that night and I agreed, we should at least meet them, so when we go back to the states we can say we met one. We introduced ourselves and that was that. Or so I thought. The friend who the first guard had brought along was Marcel, and well, we kind of hit it off. The two of them hung out with us a bunch more times and Marcel and I got to know each other a bit. He asked for my email address and when I returned to the states we kept in touch.
I don't want to go into every detail but we ended up dating for a year. He even spent his two week vacation visiting me at school. Because of his position, guarding the Holy Father, he would occassionally have close interaction with Pope Benedict. One night, the Pope was on his way back to his living quarters and passed by Marcel. He stopped to greet him and then noticed an english text book on a side table of the hall Marcel was guarding in. He asked, "what is this?" Marcel said he felt the english language was important and good to learn. The Pope smiled and said, "I see....I think you have met an english girl." Marcel surprised said, "How did you know?" The Pope answered, "I know my Swiss Guard boys. Tell me about her." Marcel told him my name, where I was from and where I went to school. The Pope replied, "tell her I say hello."
You can imagine how I died. Marcel relayed all this to me via an email and I think I started visably shaking.
Ok, fast forward....the Pope would then ask about me from time to time when he saw Marcel, (calling me Margaret, which is my name in German) and even teasing, "when will you present her to me?"
And the most amazing part, while guarding the Holy Father during his vacation at Castel Gandolfo, during one of their conversations, Marcel mentioned my upcoming birthday, upon which Pope Benedict pulled a rosary out of his pocket telling him, "please give this to her for me."
I feel obligated to write a small disclaimer at this point.....this was all the last thing in the world I thought would happen to me in college. Yet here I was, that girl, dating a swiss guard, with the most incredible things happening! And by the grace of God, I handled it very maturely I believe. I didn't let myself get caught up in this fairy tale like experience. I didn't date him because of all of it. I sought spiritual direction. I let him come visit me so we could spend time together and he could meet my family. I was allowing God to work and see what His will was. I often said, when I good friend or family member questioned where my head was at, that he didn't even seem like a swiss guard to me, I knew him as a person and a friend. None of it was because of his position. Some people even questioned his integrity. Did all these things really happen? He could tell you anything and you'd believe it. I understood the concern. But when he came and visited me, that was particularly something that was heavy on his heart. He flat out asked me, in all sincerity, what I had thought, what was my reaction to all the things he told me over the phone, letters or email about the holy father. He said he was very worried I wouldn't believe him. And then he relayed the stories to me again, in person.
It obviously did not end up working out for various reasons. And I am thankful for knowing him. And for this close connection I have felt with Pope Benedict because I met Marcel. I love our Holy Father so much, and will miss him dearly. I am so thankful for his leadership, and wisdom with which he has led the Church. I feel so grateful that I had this extremely rare insight into his personality. His thoughtfulness, kindness, care for others...his human-ness.
And let me just say here, that when this story comes up from time to time, my husband likes to say, "yeah, my wife dated a swiss guard. And she chose me." :)