Saturday, April 05, 2003

Reflections on Vatican Experience and the Impending Deployment

April 5, 2003

Ever since the threat of war began to strengthen and take hold on the thoughts of everyone near to me, there was something of a voice in my head, a vision, telling me that I must go to Vatican City. This sensation was more than a mere spontaneous superstition that I had taken hold of. This was a realization that I must go find answers to my new questions about the morality of war in a place other than that of a military base or establishment. I also realized that we are living in a time when many activists in this world simply defy anything that some more powerful nation-states do. That element of society has always been there and will always be there. I didn’t need to hear any more secular anti-war arguments, as they had always left me feeling spiritually unsatisfied. During the period of my last Grafenwöhr gunnery, I became extremely troubled and disturbed at what I had been hearing amongst soldiers, and about the general elation that we would soon be going to war. After spending a month in this kind of environment, I realized that I would have to have a cleansing of sorts in order to emerge from this storm of anticipation with my sanity intact.
When I returned home in February, I was overjoyed to be back home, but an old pattern was beginning to establish itself quite clearly. That was the pattern of going to work and becoming extremely disillusioned and depressed, only to return to my natural state of mind moments after returning home. I would go to work, witness acts of acute stupidity, hear statements concerning the war that only further illustrated the fact the moral character was seriously lacking in this occupation, and informal chatter that only brought me into further moral conflict. I began to feel as if I was working for an organization that had undergone such an internal change in both personality and purpose that I no longer belonged there. That is something that I both feel and openly accept as being true to this day. Nevertheless, I was depressed. I was completing my work, and focusing on the “mission” of the day, but my mind was elsewhere. I had to work to keep my mind off of things, but after a while, my thoughts found ways to escape the confines of my mind, and they began to express themselves through behavior. One of these behaviors was that of taking the initiative to get a task completed, and to assume powers from the Non-Commissioned Officers appointed over me. To assume this power meant that I usually had to take this power from them, and that was accomplished through initiative and semi-intelligent leadership. Semi-intelligent leadership is an asset that does not exist in many parts of my organization. The NCO’s would retain their authority, but I would be the power. With this combination, I was able to cut one of the problems, incompetent supervisors, from my list of conflicts. I wasn’t so much at odds with my NCOs out of disrespect, but rather a distrust that they would not be able to preserve the lives of the boys working under them. I know how to take care of myself, but it was for the younger guys that I had the greatest concern. This was more of a professional matter though, and I would only find myself morally conflicted again.
The time that I had spent in the field was focused primarily on studying my faith and looking for answers to questions that I have been asking to myself for about a year now. I knew that there was a war coming, I didn’t know when, but that was of little consequence since there was absolutely nothing that I could do to change that. I would write in my journal and return to my workstation to complete my tasks for the day in the office. The “When we go to war…” talk was always present, and something to be expected in these times, but it most always deteriorated in some kind of talk about extra war pay and vacations from nagging wives. There was little, if any, talk about the nature of the war that was to be. There was little talk about the morality of war. There was absolutely no talk about the reasons for this war. There was this great desire for war though, a childish machismo beginning to resurrect itself in the attitudes and ideas of the officers, fully intact from, presumably, playground days. This lead me to believe that reasons and morals were irrelevant in this society of men, all that was needed was the order to kill, and it would be happily carried out. I think this betrays something horrible about the nature of the army. Many of those that I worked with were thirsty for war, not blood. They were thirsty for war, but had only a naïve and immature notion of what war is and has been through time. Very few had an actual desire to kill, even though it is quite possible to find those types of men who do want to kill. I have encountered quite a few in my service, both officer and enlisted that express a desire to kill, and that has sometimes come as a shock to me. I remember many times when I had developed a respect for someone based on my personal interaction with them, and then they would say something like “I would kill the bastard,” or “…and blow the son-of-a-bitch’s head off.” I can also remember many times when someone that I knew and respected changed suddenly in their personality, as if possessed for a moment, to express dark carnal desires or share impulses to commit primitive acts. I have had this experience often in the Army, and it is something that I have determined to be a trait of some people in the Army. I believe that many in the Army suffer from personality disorders, sexual frustration, and feelings of masculine inadequacy. This is curiously reflected in subtle expressions in language, behavior, and power. For instance, the incessant use of words like “fuck,” “bitch,” “asshole,” and “cock sucker” are used in a wide variety of contexts. Regardless of the context, much of this language is delivered within an aggressive state of mind, which I believe is attributable to the reasons that I have stated previously. Another deplorable behavior is the widespread use, sale, and distribution of pornography in the Army. It is something utterly revolting to me, yet so cordially accepted in the Army. Many times when soldiers are deployed, soldiers go one step beyond pornography and into the arms of prostitutes (as in Kosovo and Macedonia). This is indisputable and widely acknowledged, sometimes even by jesting commanders. All this having been said, none of these soldiers were or are forced to partake in this activity; it is just the simple fact that many do. That is another thing that leads me to question whether or not I belong here. These are just some of the thoughts that I was having as I emerged from the field and returned home. When I returned though, I knew that something was going to have to happen in order for me to lead a normal work life. Again, I had been feeling for some time that I needed to go to Vatican City for mass and to seek some kind of guidance.
A few weeks after I had returned from the field, there were a few obstacles to getting to Italy, but none so great as to derail the entire idea. On the weekend that I had selected to go, I was put on the duty roster with a week’s notice. After completing that weekend duty, I was convinced that I had no other choice than to go to Vatican City, and that would have to come soon, just in case deployment was to happen. The following week, I got my tickets to fly to Rome. My intention was clear: find answers to my questions. I had been to Vatican City once before, in more peaceful times, and it was an experience like no other. I had truly felt the Holy Spirit, and became deeply thankful for the blessings that I had received in my life, which I believe are nothing short of extraordinary. It was a time when I realized that God truly has a plan, and that faith will lead one through all of life’s perils. I felt as if I was a pilgrim, and I knew that the journey of life that had begun since my birth in Alabama, was drawn towards Rome since the realization in my soul that God is real, and that belief in God brings all things good. I wanted to return to Vatican City again so that I could be in an environment that is totally Christian, that is free from the distractions and noise of the outside world, and serves as the capitol of my Catholic faith, which I hold dear to my heart.
I found some tickets to Rome, but they did not come cheap. This would have to be a sacrifice that I would make; knowing that piece of mind is priceless. I was able to get a flight that would allow me to spend that majority of Saturday and Sunday in Rome. Early Saturday morning, Nora drove me to the airport in Frankfurt so that I could catch my early morning flight to Leonardo da Vinci. On the television and all over the newspapers were visions of the so called “shock and awe” bombardment of Baghdad. The images seemed surreal. There were flashes on television followed by miniature mushroom clouds amid the metropolitan landscape. The print news depicted dark and menacing images of the city being inundated with special weapons, America’s last resort. Or so we are led to believe. This would be the third time in almost as many years that I would be in Italy in a time of national crisis. Kosovo, Afghanistan, and now Iraq. Everyone that I looked at seemed at ease, despite the fact that the war was going in full swing now. The land battle had even begun at this time. I am in the U.S. Army, and you would think that I would be a part of this war, but I was on my way to Vatican City. I was aware of this, that I was very fortunate, and that only increased my faith in God, and I was grateful that all the nights spent in prayer over the past year, and especially in the field, seemed to be answered. As I boarded that MD-80 on that sunny Saturday morning, I felt as if I was being taken somewhere, not entirely of my own free will. I was being guided there.
On the flight down to Rome, I looked down on the land and the Alps below me and thought about how peaceful everything looks from up in the air. I then looked further beyond the horizon, to the east, and I knew that a three hour flight away from where I was, bombs were being dropped, and people were being killed. I knew that some of the transport planes that I had seen in Frankfurt were loaded up with war provisions and would soon be transporting the dead. All this I knew, but inside the cabin of the aircraft, all was peaceful and all was bright, like a kiss of sunlight from God. We landed in Rome, and there was an American couple there on the plane with two small children. They were in the military, this being certified by the husband’s Ranger-style haircut. When we deplaned and stepped onto the bus that would carry us to the arrival terminal, an Italian couple offered to hold one of the Americans’ children, who looked to be newly born. The American lady allowed this, and the whole bus started to smile. I had to smile myself, for it is acts like these that bring us closer together as a planet, human interaction, and this example was especially beautiful. There was a war exploding a world away, but that group of people on that bus seemed to be the hope of the world for a moment. It is no secret that the Italians do not support the war at all, and it is no secret that they do not totally like Americans, but with all of this aside, the more you travel, and the more people you meet, the more you realize that people don’t hate Americans, they hate the decisions of our government. The most important observation that I had made was the act of kindness displayed on that bus. This act had nothing to do with pride, selfishness, or greed. This Italian woman offered a helping hand, and it made a discernable impression on all who were there. Perhaps it was made even more powerful due to the fact that the people involved were people who may not totally agree with each other politically. I thought back to the example of Christ, and what it meant to live in a world where the virtues and teachings of Christ do much to bring us into an understanding of both spiritual and earthly peace. What I had seen was a glimpse into peace as a reality.
I began to realize that my eyes and ears were open on this journey, since it began. I was witnessing acts of love and peace and seeing the value they possessed. When I got on the train to Rome from the airport, I was distinctly aware that I was on a journey, a pilgrimage of sorts in a modern time. Instead walking hundreds of miles on trails and offering prayers along the way, I was flying the distance on a jet and closing the miles by rail, surrounded by a hectic world with hectic people. There were many Americans on the train today, many who looked to be well off, going to Rome for spring break. I thought of myself, going to Rome so that I can get some answers about this war that is going on, perhaps before I am forced to go myself. When I pulled into the train station, I disembarked and headed for the ragged youth hostel that I had found for $25 a night. As soon as I arrived at the hostel, I dropped my things off and headed for the city.
I walked for quite a time, without a map, until I came across a large monument near Plaza di Vinezia. I had been there once before, so I knew where I was. I looked at the monument and I noticed something strange. There were two people chained about 50 feet above the ground to two large granite and steel flagpoles. Then they had erected a huge banner that said “No Guerra,” or something to that effect. It turns out that I had witnessed Greenpeace conduct one of their infamous acts of anti-war publicity. I then saw the police come and try to remove these chained people with the help of the fire department. By this time, the special Carabinerri had arrived. It seemed as if a thousand people started cheering and that all the traffic in that circle was stopped. People started flocking to the demonstration site. Old people, young people, all people came over to offer their support against war. I stood neutral and recorded my observations in my journal. I thought about the courage it took for these people to jump the fence, defeat the security measures that were in place, and risk injury by quickly scaling and chaining themselves so high above the ground. As they dangled precariously above the ground on their little perches, I watched as the police had to remove them. They were arrested and taken away after being cut free. I wondered to myself, how many people I know are willing to do something like this for what they believe? I don’t know too many. I know almost none in the Army that would do something because they believe in it. They just do whatever they are told in order to stay out of trouble, or because they are there for the paycheck. Most in the Army don’t know that much about the constitution they swear to defend. That is a scary thought for me. It is this same type of allegiance to the paycheck and blind obedience that facilitates immoral activity every day, in the corporate world, and in conflict. I often wonder how it is that the SS soldiers of the German army allowed the concentration camps to operate. I wonder how it is that many of the guards showed no compassion or mercy on those below them. I believe that I now understand how it is that the military can seize political power, and how allegiances to various objects can mutate behavior. In any case, the Greenpeace activists that were arrested did something courageous, and it was something for the cause of non-violence. We often witness fictional acts of courage on television, or in war movies, or recently on the news when we hear about an infantry division destroying over 300 Iraqi soldiers. Rarely do these acts fill me with pride, even though they fill many people with some mysterious pride. I felt more pride being a person of peace and brother to the common man when I saw those anti-war activists put themselves in danger. I was proud and comforted that I am part of a state of mind that sees war as a despicable thing.
After witnessing the Greenpeace activists, I continued on my way to Vatican City. It was a long walk, and I had been anticipating seeing the dome of St. Peter’s. As I had no map, and I was guiding myself according to memory, I expected to see the church at any time. I reached the Po River and crossed the bridge that leads to St. Peter’s. I was able to see St. Peter’s a few moments later. This is when I realized that I had realized my dream, I had listened to the voice in my soul, and that voice led me here, this point on the globe. St. Peter’s itself was not an object that I came to worship, it was the place where I came to worship. Making it to Vatican City, especially at this time, was in itself a small miracle. Again, I could feel the Spirit guiding me along, and I knew that answers were awaiting me; I just didn’t know how I would find them. I had faith that I would though, and my life has taught me to trust in my faith in Christ. I had come so far. Just a few weeks ago, I was in the field, surrounded by the instruments of war and a society that fostered indolence and deference. There was a great sense of mystery as well, as I knew that I was being drawn to Vatican City, but I didn’t know what would come of it. What I did know was that something would come of it that I could not find anywhere else. I remembered coming upon the Vatican two years earlier, and the feeling of total excitement that I felt. It was a moving experience, and you discover emotions and feelings that have been sleeping inside of you, only to be expressed for the first time when visiting such a place, feelings that come from the best parts of your heart, from you deepest hopes, from your true faith. As I approached the Vatican this time, it was with a curious and humble heart, this was not the fun trip that I had planned two years ago, it is a very different world now, and I could feel the rumbling of the war’s storm in the distance. I walked nearer, and I felt as if I was a pilgrim, and the more the day progressed, the more I realized that is just what I was.
I entered St. Peter’s square and took some time to reacquaint myself with the area. I had heard somewhere that is was traditional for Catholics to walk a circle of St. Peter’s Square. I wasn’t sure about this, but I did walk a portion of this while in prayer, just in case. I found that to be innocently amusing to myself, to walk a portion of it just in case that was a tradition of pilgrims. I noticed that the line leading up to the church was not that long, as it had been before when I was in Rome. I decided that I would go in the church, but I was conscious of the fact that I was in need of answers, and I wanted to find someone to talk to, be it a Brother or Sister, or anyone who would listen. I was a bit shy about this though, so I though going into the church would allow me to build some courage. One thing was for sure, I knew that I would find what I was looking for. So, I walked towards the entrance line and waited along with all the other people, who happened to come from all walks of life. I always notice the Americans, because they are the loudest, or so it seems to me, and they are always weighed down with tourist gear. I found it strange, but not surprising, that there were so many Americans there in Rome while there was a war going on. Sometimes I would think about these rich people traveling around Europe, while people like my friends, and perhaps soon myself, would be fighting to defend such people. Bombs were falling just a thousand miles away, people being murdered and terrorized by the hundreds, and then here is a nice American family, clumsily fumbling through their excessive tourist equipment, talking loudly about mindless subjects while butchering the English language, and keeping their pot-head teenagers in tow. Yes, these are the people of the world’s greatest superpower, and it scares me. We need Christ more than ever, I thought.
I passed through a security check, and a cool-looking Italian plain-clothed guard inspected my bag and allowed me to pass with a slight movement of his hand. I continued on and made my way to the main entrance of the church. I was in awe of the height of the ceilings just before the door, and it was all wondrous to think that man built this as a testament to his love and respect for God. I shuffled my way into the church, and saw a few officials, cardinals, brothers, sisters, and other religious-looking people, but I did not have the resolve to speak to one. I knew that I would, but I was unsure myself of when that would be. After all, that was my reason for coming here. When I passed through the doors I entered a new world it seemed, far from that of the war, or Saddam Hussein, of George W. Bush, of human weakness. I felt comforted in the fact that I am not alone in my faith, and that my faith is supported firmly where I was standing. It instilled in me reassurance that even though the world seems to be a hectic and cheap place, there is still the church with its true power and invisible influence throughout the world. There was something in the air about that church, it was so immense, so vast, I couldn’t begin to describe even one wing of it without taking up twenty pages. I remember seeing the natural sunlight shining through the massive stained glass windows, and the beautiful haze that it projected, and dim ray of light cast upon the floor, illuminating ever so slightly some small detail in the surrounding, ancient walls. Look closer, and you realize that you are seeing a mosaic, and not a painting. There was beauty and devotion in every inch of the place. I only regretted one thing as I was realizing all the beautiful things about the church, and that was all the people and cameras that were flashing there inside. I know that it should be open, but maybe just during certain hours for tourists. The flashing, the amusement on the faces of people, all conveyed a slight feeling of being within a tourist attraction that opened its doors for anyone. This feeling reinforced my feeling that I was a pilgrim, and that the journey does not end simply by arriving at some geographical location, it happens when you arrive upon your spiritual goal. So I looked in awe, I took in all the beauty that had been given to us by generations before us, in the hope of glorifying our simple God, being human in ourselves by showing our gratitude to Him with our worldly offerings, through art, sweat, labor, masonry.
I looked around for a place to pray, but there were only a few rooms that were available. Those rooms were full of people, and even then, there were people talking pictures in there too. I did not become too offended by all of this curiosity, and I was able to reason that it was in the middle of the day on a Saturday, and everyone there had just as much right as me to be there. If they didn’t have the same appreciation of the place that I had, then that was just a difference between me and them, and nothing more. I then saw a place set aside for the sacrament of reconciliation. I noticed that there were large booths there. I asked the priest there if there were confessions being held, and he said that there was. I would need a priest who spoke English. The priest took me to a booth, and the priest in that booth said that he only spoke Italian and German. I considered talking to him, because I had faith in my ability to speak German, but then I conceded to the fact that I was unsure about my ability to convey complicated feelings with eloquence and clarity. I needed clarity, and unmistakable communication. The priest then directed me to another booth where there were already a few people waiting. It looked like two of them were Americans in their mid-fifties. They were dressed in Nike sneakers, blue jeans, sweatshirts, and one with a baseball cap that had his local golf course name on it. They were dressed as all the other American men who come presumably from corporate America with their families. After some time, the priest who could speak English (they had to go find one) arrived. After a few minutes it was my turn. I realized that this was the perfect opportunity to ask the priest my questions concerning the morality of war, and what I should do. As I entered the booth, I could see through the screen, and there was the priest resting his head in his hands, looking either bored, or in deep thought. I honestly think that he was bored, and I could understand that, hearing the confessions of tourists. But maybe I am being too critical here. So, I said my things to commence the confession, and I listed the things that I had done wrong, and he didn’t seem too startled, and didn’t respond with much life. I then told him that I am going to Iraq in the next few weeks, and that I have been having doubts about the morality of war, and that I cannot kill. He immediately interrupted me and came to life, sprung his head from his hands, and talked to me in a powerful and Italian accented deep voice. He asked “You are going to the war in Iraq, you are a soldier then?”
‘Yes,’ I answered. At this time, we both peered thought the screen and made total eye contact, the kind of eye contact that is required when talked about matter so grave. I was totally focused at that point, and realized that this is one of the times in my life where I should listen completely.
“There has been a lot of talk about this war, about who is right and who is wrong. About Saddam torturing his people, and about Bush wanting revenge, we know about all of this. BUT, all of this does not matter! The politics of this does not matter; war is an immoral thing, that there is no doubt. We must have faith in Christ, because Christ is the highest authority, and George W. Bush will have to answer to God for leading a preemptive war, and he will be held accountable,” he said with a passion and a purpose so startling to me, with his eyes so burning and concerned, that I knew that I was finding the answers that I was seeking. He continued: “You must trust God in your life, and you should go, but only to protect the innocent and to protect life. You must protect your life, the life of your comrades, and the lives of others. You must bear witness for Christ! Your leaders will be punished for bringing this violence upon the earth…but you are innocent. God knows this in your heart, He knows you, and you will not be punished for the sins of you leaders. Go, do your duty, but trust in Christ, and you will be saved,” he proclaimed with such conviction. I knew that I was hearing the truth. He then abruptly and with a sense of urgency said “Come to the front, where I can see you!”
I came out from the confessional and went before him, and he spoke with a serious look on his face, a concerned look, while nodding his head to emphasize what he was about to say. “I want you to have this, it is from Pope John XXIII, he was a soldier in the First World War,” he said while relaxing a bit and handing me a card. This priest looked to be in his early forties, olive skinned, with an intelligent gleam in his eye, and a quickness of speech (albeit it with an accent) and expression. He had a heavy brow, which projected an aura of gravity. “Bow your head,” he said. “I am going to give you a blessing, and I will be praying for you too,” he explained. He then went on with the blessing, while I bowed my head in seriousness “Go forth as an instrument of peace, in compassion. Lord protect him, watch over him, and give him everlasting life. In this we pray, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” He then smiled and became friendly, as did I, immediately in my deepest heart that I had found the answer that I was looking for. Something deep inside of me was fulfilled. He reassuringly shook my hand, with all the sincerity that I could hope to find in a fellow man, and wished me a heartfelt safe journey. That was all that needed to be said, and you could see on his face, as I am sure you could see on mine, that something out of the ordinary had just happened. My fate continued to hang in the balance as war was raging far away, but I knew that I was in the palm of God’s hand. I turned away from the confessional and cast my eyes towards the ceiling, thanking God in my own personal way for what had just happened. It was a moment of perfect spiritual and personal clarity. I knew if while I was walking the halls of Saint Peter’s, all knowing that I could just as well been in the desert if it wasn’t for our supply ships being stuck in Turkey. It was well known- I should have been in Iraq that day.
It seemed like time was standing still there at the Vatican. I was reassured and happy that I had been given some clear guidance on the war and my role in it. There was a happiness in my heart that had been missing since the time that I had come back in the Army, a happiness that was only marginally remaining because of my love of God and the love Nora gave me. It felt as if I could come back home to her and the Army with a fresh out look on life, an outlook that I had held before in life.
I decided that I should explore the grounds a little bit more, but then I found the sculpture by Michelangelo of the Virgin Mary holding her broken son. I looked intensely at the form of Christ’s body, at the message of the image. I then thought to myself: ‘The world killed Christ, he offered his kindness and example, and we killed him, there he lays broken. He died for our sins, to show us that he loved us all, and that was something that he accepted. Humans killed Christ, the son of God, but here I am standing in a temple for Christ, built by the same humans that killed him.” This was when I realized that yes, the world is a terrible place, but it can be better, and that the hope for all things better is the church, and our fellow man. Humans have all the potential to be like Christ, just as they do to be evil. I thought about this as I strolled outside the doors of the church, and then went to the staircase to climb to the top of the rotunda.
I went on my way to the first level of the rotunda, the interior ring, that overlooks the main alter. It was an amazing sight to see, the architecture and the materials used seemed all out of this world. The massive blocks, the precision in placement of even the smallest tile, the detail paid to every corner. I looked above, and it seemed as if the rotunda was one hundred meters higher. I went into a passage way, and there I found some more stairs. I climbed and climbed, looking out of the small windows along the way that offered commanding views of the stucco colored city of Rome. At one point, the passage along the stairwell became extremely narrow, and tilted at a thirty-five degree angle. I was approaching the top of the dome. After climbing up another series of stairs, I smelled a trace of fresh air, and soon I was on the top of the dome. The view that I had of Rome was amazing. I could see all of the Vatican City State. I saw a grotto and garden and a stately looking building that seemed fit for receiving political leaders. I could also see down on St. Peter’s Square. The most interesting thing was not the view itself, but the climbing of so many stairs through layers of history, in order to reach that position high above all else. For me it was a metaphor for becoming closer to God, for climbing and laboring to get to be higher that what we are.
I eventually descended the stairs, and came out on a level that put me on the rooftop of the main entrance, where the large statue of Christ and then the other statues of the apostles stand. There was a small gift shop there, and I was able to buy some post cards and have a seat to enjoy the beautiful day. I didn’t feel like leaving, and I didn’t really care to see Rome. I could do that some other time, after the war. I did eventually leave the Vatican though, and I went back to the youth hostel. That is where I met a guy from Australia.
I went to my room to find another guy there about my age. I introduced myself and he responded to me in English. It turned out that he was Australian and traveling Europe while working odd jobs and trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend in Holland. He had just been living in London, so we talked about London and the area in Chelsea that we were both very familiar with. He then asked what I was doing in Europe, and I told him that I was a soldier stationed in Germany. He was surprised to hear that there were still soldiers in Germany from the U.S. As was inevitable, being that the war was at a fever pitch, he asked if I was going to Iraq. I said that we were already supposed to be gone, but there was a delay. He then went on to say that he really likes Americans and has a lot of respect for George W. Bush. This was something that I did not care to hear, especially from a fellow Anglo-Saxon. I didn’t need any allies or my own coalition of the willing while in Italy, I didn’t need to be American, and I surely didn’t need the moral support a flattering Australian along this journey to Rome. He began to tell me of his adoration of our government, and the courage that we have as a nation. I began to ask myself what this guy really knew about the U.S. in the way I do as someone who grew up in the Deep South for most of my life. I then realized that he was just being naïve, and that shouldn’t discourage me from talking to him. I then went on to tell him my views about the current government in the U.S. and about the war on a whole, on a moral plane. He seemed a bit confused as to how I could believe what I believe as a soldier, but what was lost in respect was compensated for in our ability to relate about our travels and common experiences. I think that I always have been able to relate a bit of realness when I am talking to other people, the key is to be sincere. I told him about my journey to Vatican City, but didn’t go into details, as I believed that I would lose his interest and make him uncomfortable. We talked a little longer, and I wanted to return to Vatican City that evening. He invited me out for a drink with some other guys, but I don’t think he ever realized that I wasn’t in Rome to party; I was there on a very serious mission. I politely said that I would come back later, and perhaps we could all meet up and go out. I knew this would be impossible.
I packed a small bag with a jacket, and then I was off again. There was an ever present Cabarinierri helicopter flying overhead. You could hear the beating of the rotor blades from almost any point in the city. I thought nothing of the police presence, until I climbed off the subway car at the coliseum station. There I looked at the coliseum for a moment, recalling the time that I was there with Dean a few years earlier. I noticed that there was some fencing put up, and large crowds of people gathering towards Plaza di Vinezia. I went to see what was going on. I remembered that this was the site of the Greenpeace stunt earlier in the day. As I approached the crowds, I found myself moving along in a stream of meandering people, some holding flags, some very young, others surprisingly old. There seemed to be a wide variety of people, all marching, and it was all in the cause of peace. I remember seeing a few people who looked as if they were professional protesters, as one can always find, and there was a man with a can of spray-paint who painted “Yankee Go Home” on the wall of the large memorial there. I was disappointed to see this, because it looked like the general riff raff were using this as an occasion to live lawlessly, if only for an hour or two. The true protesters were there though, the ones who demonstrated gracefully and with a purpose. It was more than just some meaningless social gathering. I remember being truly moved by this sight, so many people were there. It was sincere, it was real, and it was a statement.
I heard a loud screech, and it was then that I saw a fire cracker rocket streak towards the police helicopter that had been flying all day long. It came within meters of the pilot’s canopy before exploding. I was amazed to see the precision at which this simple fire cracker was fired. That was enough to get my attention and remind me that whenever common people are gathered in mass for political reasons, things can become very volatile. As I was thinking this, the helicopter, perhaps startled, flew away. The crowds began to cheer victoriously, in the exact same way one may expect to hear a crowd cheering on a person defying the police at a rock concert. I followed the march a little more on, until we came upon a road block. I nudged my way all the way to the front until I was met by a solid line of Cabarinerri riot police. I was no more than a meter away from them, and even asked one of the commanders to autograph one of my journal pages. He, of course, said no. The thing that I found to be curious was the expression on the faces of the riot police. They seemed a little uneasy, and they seemed a little apathetic in general. That is when I also realized that government force relies on police to enforce its laws and codes. The problem is, the police are human beings too, and when a cause is unjust or wrong, there is no guarantee that the police will enforce the will of the government. That was a reassuring thought. There was one occasion when an American man and his family came up to the police and asked them if they could get through the barricade. The man, with his terrified-looking wife and kids, nervously said that he was an American, and that he needed to get to safety. The police man barely acknowledged his presence, and didn’t permit him to pass. I felt compelled to tell the man that he was in no danger, and that they could easily work their way through the crowd, but that is difficult to tell someone that seems to be paranoid. There is something to understand about Europe, and that it that many of these people are not anti-American, they are antiwar. Another thing that is important to realize is that many people like Americans and American culture, but they hate our government. I do not know how long people will remain American friendly here in Europe, but if America continues to operate in such a unilateral fashion, we may be less wanted here in the Old World.
I decided to leave the protest so that I could get something to eat. I hadn’t eaten all day, and I was feeling weak. I found my way to a Mc Donald’s near the Spanish Steps. This is where Dean and I ate when we parked our car in the garage near there in 2000. I found it funny that there were so many peace protesters there!
I ate my cheeseburger, minus the meat, and then decided it was time to go back to the Vatican so I could pray a bit before going to sleep. I jumped on the subway and went a few stations down. I came back above ground, and then started walking the almost abandoned streets towards the Vatican. I passed the main guarded entrance, and then went on into St. Peter’s Square. It was a beautiful night that night, and the church was illuminated wonderfully. All of this visual sensation aside, there was an great sense and atmosphere of stillness and calm, with a perfect trace of coolness in the air from the Mediterranean. There were small groups of couples walking around, enjoying the fine night, some priests and nuns making their way here and there, and some sporadic laughter echoing from the Italian teenagers stopping a moment for some peace and quiet before heading to the clubs for a night of dancing. I loved being there that night. I found a spot to sit at the foot of the pillar in the center of the square. There, I thought about my life, about Nora, about the war. I thought about so many things, and I came to the same conclusion: trusting in God is the only way to make it through this life happily. I sat there that quiet night, and I realized how extraordinarily fortunate I have been over the years. I was so thankful for all of that. I know that is not just a coincidence, and I knew that clearly when I was there sitting under the stars. I felt like I was sitting at the center of earth, the focal point for all human consciousness of God. I then picked up my new rosary, and I offered my prayers and wishes. After doing this, I gently found my way out of the square, and back to the subway. I was tired – it was time to return to my shabby bed at the hostel.
The next morning I woke up early so that I would make it to mass in time. I noticed that the Australian guy was still sleeping, but as I left the hostel for the last time, I did not bother to leave a note or an e-mail address, as I have done in the past when meeting other hikers. I simply left, and I thought that some ideas and lessons are best learned alone. I went to Centro Termini and then got on the subway to the Vatican. I was really amused to see all the people packed onto that train, full of nuns and priests and churchgoers. Everyone was speaking another language or carrying a different flag. I felt like I was part of something greater than myself, as if I was connected to these other people through the faith that we share and have in common. I believe that is a wonderful thing to share in common, and such a benevolent spirit to celebrate. We all started working our way towards St. Peter’s Square en mass. There was a security checkpoint there, and I had to get my bags X-rayed. After this, I was able to find me a seat that would allow me to sit in general solitude, in the center row before the pope’s altar. I was surrounded by Hungarian nuns and families. What I didn’t know was that the mass would be over 3 hours long, as there was a beautification of five new saints to take place.
After sitting for some time, and listening to the music being played, the mass finally began. Around this same time, there was an old woman who sat next to be, who appeared well bejeweled and clothed. There were four big-screen televisions that stood amongst the massive crowd that offered a view of all the happenings during the mass. A black sedan drove slowly up to the altar, and then a few moments later, I remember seeing the pope for the first time. He waved to the crowd and smiled. Instantly, all the people in the crowed rejoiced, as did all of the Hungarian women and the lady next to me. I looked around me, and you could see faces of all shades of racial color. You could see the poor all the way up to the elite. All of this you could see under the canopy of a perfect, flawless, blue sky. As the music continued to play, seagulls sailed around the church, and the brightest, purest sunshine warmed my face. The mass went on for some time, mostly in Italian. Since there were five new saints being named, representatives from all the home countries of the new saints were there. The mass was said in over 6 languages at one time or another. During one of the songs, the lady next to me asked where I was from in English. She had correctly assumed that I was American. I told her that I was from South Carolina. She asked what someone from South Carolina was doing in Vatican City. I told her about my situation, and about how I live in Europe with Nora and that I work in the Army. We talked about the war, and we talked about the current U.S. government. I was surprised to find that she thought the same things that I did about what was right and what was wrong in the U.S. We continued to talk throughout the mass about observations that we found interesting.
There was a point in the mass that I remember as impacting me profoundly. I had received that sacrament of communion, and then I returned to my seat to pray. I was looking towards the ground, and I saw the shoes of different people passing by. I saw the finest leather, the dirtiest rags of cloth, tennis shoes, slippers, and shoes falling apart. I began to cry for only a few seconds, because of the beauty of the moment. I thought about all these people of the world, poor, rich, old, ugly, beautiful, black, white, all of these people were gathered in one place, and all shared one thing in common- they were all pilgrims. Everyone there has sacrificed something, had felt the urge to go to Rome, and had to the faith to travel thousands of miles to be closer to God. It was something that we all share in common, it was something real, and it gave me so much hope for this world. We gathered in peace, in a time of war, and came together to celebrate God and peace, not politics or triumph. That moved me profoundly. There was one point where the square seemed a micro chasm of the world, and an example of the truth in Christian love on a large scale. I was amazed to see that during the showing of the sign of peace, thousands of people there were shaking hands, people who shared nothing in common with each other than their Christian faith and love. That is when I realized many things that we do in the Church have a wider meaning than simply ceremony.
At the end of the mass, the pope climbed into his popemobile and was driven around the square. I was finally able to see him just a meter or two away. He was smiling, he was waving, he looked overjoyed to be there in that position, and so loved. People from all over the world began to wave their flags. There were nuns from Africa, priests from Vietnam, children from Chile. It was truly a global family celebrating the spirit of love and goodness in God. I walked around and said goodbye to the old American lady who was sitting next to me. She wanted to have her picture taken with me, so I did, and she invited Nora and I to Idaho, should we ever go there. I went around and found circles of people celebrating by playing traditional instruments and dancing in traditional dress, flags flying. I felt really at home, I felt like I was amongst my people, and I felt like I belonged there. I felt like there was hope for the world, so long as people like the people I was with that day walked the earth.
I had to leave Rome that afternoon, so I bought some small items for the family and then jumped on the train to the airport. It was really hot that day, and the weather was beautiful. I wrote in my journal as we passed the outskirts of the city and the ancient city walls. I would glance up from time to time to see the landscape, and I had to smile to myself, for this would be another journey that I could and would never forget. The most wonderful thing was that I found truth. I felt reaffirmed in what my heart and soul had been telling me for most of my adult life. I found my truth, and I witnessed it, and I felt as if a very important bit of knowledge was given to me, something that can’t be truly explained or reasoned, but more something that only the soul can understand. When I arrived at the Leonardo Da Vinci Airport in Rome, I was ready to go home to Nora, and to face what was going to happen in relation to the war. I had a new, refreshed outlook on life, and that was to be proactive in your life, but to have faith in God ultimately.
Since that time, the war has all but ended. What remains to be done is the rebuilding of Iraq. It is a tragedy that the war was begun, and it was an even greater tragedy that all the suffering has since been forgotten. The horror of war, the shame of war, and the murder involved should not be forgotten simply because the U.S. was victorious and that a people will now be able to live differently. There are many means available to reach an end, and if war is the final solution for every slightly advanced political problem, then we will not grow to be greater human beings of greater potential. We should show for each other a Christian love, and that love and openness will be returned. This is not an ideal, this is not a fantasy, it is the way that we should live. It is in God’s love that we will live in peace, it is not in the ways of men. The road has been show to us, it is up to us to decide if we have the courage to take the right path.


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