Last semester, I was lucky enough to study abroad at Catholic University’s Rome Center in the Eternal City. Towards the end of my four months in this historic place, I had the opportunity to attend a Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square with Pope Francis.
In preparation for this event, I stopped by Barbiconi, an ecclesiastical tailor near the Pantheon, to pick up a white zucchetto. A zucchetto is the tiny skull cap worn by prelates of the Catholic Church, it is fuchsia for bishops, scarlet for cardinals, and white for the pope. The purposes of such a purchase was that the Pope will regularly trade his zucchetto during an audience when presented with another. My plan to get the ultimate Roman souvenir was in motion.
We arrived at the Square around 6:45 in the morning in order to get the optimal seat, and we certainly were successful. In fact, we were able to be in the very first row on the right side of the square. Around 10:00 a.m., the Pope came out. When he crossed our path the first time, I waved the tiny piece of cloth to get his attention. He saw us, and proceeded to bless it. Not half bad. After about ten minutes, he came by a second time. Again, I waved the zucchetto furiously for the Bishop of Rome to see. Catching his attention again, he blessed it a second time, and then gave us a little wave as if to say, “Calm down, two blessings is certainly good enough.” Alas, my plan for a swap was foiled by the Pontiff himself.
Not to worry, I had three more free Wednesdays to make the trade. After watching many videos of successful zucchetto swaps on YouTube, I established a plan to make my move.
Arriving early for the Wednesday Papal Audience in St. Peter’s Square, a friend and I secured seats this time near the back of the first section. Here the popemobile passes by twice at a very close distance, the optimal spot to reach out to the bishop of Rome. With an hour left before he entered the square, all was perfect for the switch.
However, an announcement in Italian came from the loudspeakers that the General Audience was being moved inside to the Paul VI Audience Hall nearby. Luckily, our basic knowledge of the language gave us a slight advantage in making our way to the gated entrance before the bulk of the crowds. Throughout our dash to the hall, I became nervous that the switch would be impossible in this new environment which I had not prepared for.
Yet, we were able to get seats about four away from the main center aisle. I then walked over to the divider hoping that the Pope would pass nearby. As it got closer and closer to the starting time, my pulse became faster and faster, and the crowds grew larger and larger. Finally, I looked to my right and saw Pope Francis entering the hall to thunderous applause. All around me people pushed in to get close to the Pontiff and I fought hard to secure my spot.
As he got closer and closer, I reached my arm out and waved the zucchetto for him to see. I became nervous when he turned to the opposite side of the aisle to greet some visitors some five feet away. I was near the head of the Vatican Police who was holding back dozens of arms reaching out towards Francis. He looked at me and I made brief eye contact in order to communicate that I was trying to make the swap. The Pope then turned towards our side. He saw the white cap, took it from my hand, and placed it on his head. Looking at one of his attendants, who made with a slight shake of his head expressed the zucchetto was not the ideal size. The Pope took the cap off and placed it on the hand of a gentleman near me who passed it up towards my grasp.
All in all, it was a thrilling event. At the audience, a summary of the Pope’s speech is repeated by priests representing different languages and we were pleasantly surprised to find out our Rome Center Chaplain, Fr. Anthony Ekpo — who works for the Vatican Secretariat of State –spoke for the English language. An exciting morning and one of the many highlights of my time studying abroad.
P.S. The photo above is when Pope Francis twice blessed my zucchetto!