100 Hours of Humo(u)r – Hour 41: Don’t Grope the Pope!
By Dave Fox
Vatican City, 2001
[This story originally appeared on my original humor site, davethefox.com, in 2001. It is also found in the short Amazon Kindle e-book, Loster! – Hilarious Travel Tales Rescued from the Elusive First Edition of “Getting Lost”]
Every Wednesday, Pope John Paul II has a get-together with 8,000 followers. He rides down the aisle in his Pope-mobile, kisses babies, blesses the crowd, and does what he can to promote peace and love. Thousands of pilgrims travel thousands of miles to hear the Pontiff. A few of them freak out.
I’m not Catholic, and I realize that as an outsider, describing religious pilgrims as “freaking out” might be begging for a coach class ticket to hell. But bear with me and keep in mind that I was trying to help maintain sanctity at the event.
I went to the Vatican expecting a solemn affair. It felt more like a rowdy World Cup soccer crowd. Mexican and Russian delegations held up national flags as they waited for His Holiness. Other groups waved matching colored scarves. The Americans were most boisterous. A group of about 200 college students chanted and clapped in unison as they unfurled a large spray-painted banner. “John Paul Two, we love you!” they cried, hoping to lure the Pope out on stage.
I was five feet from the center aisle, where in moments, one of the world’s most influential people would walk by. I just wanted one good photo. As the time grew closer, people began shoving – Pope hooligans.
Everyone was standing on their chairs now – everyone but the young nun beside me. She looked bewildered.
A Puerto Rican couple tried to squish past a woman in my tour group. The woman in my group wouldn’t let them through. “I’ve been waiting 45 minutes,” she insisted. “This is my spot.”
A barrage of Spanish insults ensued from the Puerto Ricans, along with one word in English: “Knife.”
I was busy protecting my own vantage point. There was a shove from behind, and as I stumbled off my chair, I watched another man’s video camera crash down. I had seen tamer crowds at Pearl Jam concerts.
Finally, the Pope entered. Everyone gasped. Just as I snapped my photo, a rugby match broke out, in which the guy behind me attempted to get closer to God by flinging himself over the crowd to fondle the Pope’s robe. The Pope, a man who usually radiates inner peace, looked perturbed as his follower tried to grope him.
I wanted another photo – one of the Pontiff looking less pissed off. My new digital camera was taking an eternity to recycle for another picture. Then, just as it warmed up, the Pope moved, perfectly centered, into my viewfinder. It would be a photo of a lifetime. I pressed the button. The red eye light flashed. My camera beeped feebly. And just as the shutter clicked, up went the hand of the woman beside me, right in front of my lens. I ended up with a picture of her camera.
Twenty seconds later, the Pope was far away, continuing his journey to the stage. I had just seen him up close – only it was through my camera lens – like seeing him on TV. Now he was a vague white blur off in the distance. I had a photo to prove how close I was, but I felt like I hadn’t seen him at all.
On our way out, after the English part of the service, the woman who had claimed to be wielding a knife earlier was waiting for us. She stepped in our way, waving her fist. “Let’s go outside,” she said menacingly to the woman she had sparred with earlier.
“You want to fight… in the Vatican?!” I asked.
“She pushed me!” she sputtered. “You want to fight? I like to fight?”
I don’t like to fight. Especially in the presence of prominent world religious leaders. Instead I seized the opportunity to feed my ego.
For days, I had been an off-duty Scandinavian tour guide in Rome, used to being the center of attention on tours. All week, I had stood quietly on the sidelines. Now was my chance to be a hero. I spoke French. I could explain to the Swiss soldiers who guard the Vatican what was going on.
It’s difficult to ask a Vatican guard to protect you though. Their main way of defending Vatican City is that if anybody tries to attack, they will stand in the attacker’s way, causing him or her to fall down in a convulsive fit of laughter. This is from the court jester costumes the guards wear – unquestionably the world’s silliest military uniforms.
I tried to keep a straight face, but I had another problem. I had skipped French class the day the teacher taught us how to say, “This woman is a psychotic freak who is threatening to stab us in the presence of the Pope.”
After several botched attempts, I constructed a halfway grammatical sentence. “This woman is being very violent. She is attacking us.”
The guard looked at me like I was insane. Our assailant stood calmly smirking in the distance.
Desperate, I switched to English. “She’s following us,” I said. “She’s crazy. Will you please make sure she doesn’t follow us outside?”
He didn’t understand me. I was begging this man to protect us, but he wasn’t getting it. And the only thing he really looked capable of doing was juggling and playing the lute.
The woman followed us outside. I don’t know how long she stalked us for. We ignored her and she eventually went away. Perhaps the Vatican guards figured out what was up and stopped her. Or perhaps it finally dawned on her that slugging somebody in front of the Pope might cost her a few points in the afterlife.
Mob psychology makes people do crazy things. It’s why there’s football violence in England. It’s why people get trampled at rock concerts. I had thought that at a Papal audience of all places, people would respect each other. But when you put 8,000 strangers in a room together for any reason, something far more powerful than sanity or spirituality takes over.
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