Image credit: Pope John Paul II, 1989, public domain
by Marcia R. Rudin
In March of 1998, my husband Rabbi James Rudin, Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, led a group of approximately thirty to Israel and the Vatican. The delegation included other rabbis, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, Catholic bishops, and Catholic scholars. I joined them in Rome, where we were to have two audiences with the Pope.
The delegation stayed in two-room suites at St. Martha’s House, officially known as Domus Sancta Marthae. This magnificent facility was within the Vatican gates. One had to show a special pass to the Vatican Swiss guards in order to enter. St. Martha’s House had at that time just been recently built to house cardinals during papal elections. At other times it is used for conferences, to house official Vatican guests, and as living quarters for the priests and bishops serving the Vatican.
Our two-room suite was beautiful. The walls of the outer chamber were paneled with gleaming cherry wood. All along one wall of the entry room were floor-to-ceiling closets accommodating the elegant long robes and other formal paraphernalia of visiting bishops and cardinals. There was a large mahogany desk and two chairs. Our windows overlooked a beautiful intimate inner courtyard garden with birds singing and a noisy rooster that rudely awakened us each morning.
The other wife on the trip and I were the first women to stay in St. Martha’s. We heard that the housekeeping staff — all Catholic Sisters — was very upset that women would be sleeping there. And to make matters worse, one of the women was Jewish!
Others at the Vatican were apparently also nervous about a feminine presence there because at dinner on our first night, one of our hosts gave a speech no doubt directed towards we wives asking us to please behave decorously at all times while at St. Martha’s. Don’t run around in the halls in our bikinis? Or worse yet, nude? In fact, a few weeks later when one of the Swiss Guards murdered another guard in a homosexual lovers’ spat, my friends in New York joked that bad karma resulting from my sleeping in St. Martha’s might have caused that tragic event.
Our first meeting with Pope John Paul II took place at a public audience held every Wednesday afternoon in St. Peter’s Square. I had seen these gatherings on television, but nothing prepared me for how moved I would be by the joyous atmosphere and the power of faith.
It was a beautiful sunny afternoon with perfect early spring temperatures. Thousands filled the huge square. Several bands in the crowd played and throngs sang, sometimes playfully competing. We sat in the VIP section at the front near the doors to St. Peter’s Basilica. Our seats faced the Pope sideways. We could easily see him as well as the thousands of happy faces looking up at us.
The frail Pope, already quite ill, sat in his throne-like canopied chair. He delivered his remarks in six languages. After the outdoor ceremony was over, he greeted each of us as a Vatican photographer snapped pictures, which of course everyone later purchased. In addition to our group and other VIP delegations, he personally greeted newly married couples. The brides once again wore their wedding gowns. Gravely ill people, some very young, were carried to the Pope on stretchers. The joy on the faces of these terminally ill patients reflected the comfort they felt from receiving his personal blessing.
A week later our delegation gathered for a private audience with the Pope in one of the small magnificent private rooms in the Vatican. The white walls were gilded with gold. We had been instructed to congregate early, so had to wait, seated quietly, for nearly an hour.
As the time dragged on, my stomach felt more and more queasy. It was clearly rebelling against weeks of heavy Italian food and wonderful Italian wine we had consumed during our trip at ten or eleven p.m. every night.
With each passing moment, I grew more alarmed. I was sitting next to Cardinal Keeler. I leaned toward him and whispered I was afraid I might throw up on the Pope when I shook his hand after the brief program. Cardinal Keeler, a gentle, lovely man, said, “Marcia, don’t worry. The Holy Father wouldn’t mind. He once had someone die in his arms during a private audience.”
Finally, the Pope and his entourage entered the room. Aides led the shaky Pontiff to a chair in the center of the platform. He nodded for the proceedings to begin. Designated members of our delegation made brief speeches. Pope John Paul II delivered a barely-audible but gracious response. Then we formed a line and a Master of Ceremonies — that’s where that term comes from, I learned that day — dressed in formal tails led each of us up to greet him.
I approached the Pope, stomach lurching wildly. As he shook my hand, I was surprised by his intense charisma. He peered deeply into my eyes. I felt he could look straight into my soul.
I did not throw up.
But while, as Cardinal Keeler had assured me Pope John Paul II would have forgiven me if that had happened, I’m pretty sure my husband would have considered it grounds for divorce.
Marcia R. Rudin graduated from Boston University and earned a joint MA degree in religion from Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary. She studied for a PhD at the New School for Social Research and taught history of religion. She was a resident in screenwriting at the MacDowell Colony of the Arts. Her plays have received productions in Manhattan, New Jersey, California, West Virginia, and Michigan.
Marcia is author of the novel Hear My Voice and coauthor of Why Me? Why Anyone? and Prison or Paradise? The New Religious Cults. Her articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times and The New York Daily News. An expert on destructive cults, she was quoted in Newsweek and The New York Times and appeared on Dateline NBC, CBS Evening News and CBS Morning News.
She and her husband, Rabbi James Rudin, live in Manhattan and Florida. For additional information, visit www.marciarudin.com.
You can find Marcia’s novels, Flower Toward the Sun and Hear My Voice, by clicking the links. And click to read the latest by Rabbi James Rudin, Pulitzer Prize nominated author and husband of Marcia Rudin, The People in the Room: Rabbis, Nuns, Pastors, Popes, and Presidents.
Great article You two are amazing. Especially you, my sister!
Congratulations to a gifted, most talented couple. You are both a true pleasure to read
Please do keep it up. Warm greetings from Rome.
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