One year ago today I sat staring in stunned disbelief at my computer screen, my eyes darting between the glaring announcement on my Facebook newsfeed (of all the ways to get big news…) and the glistening dome of St. Peter’s basilica, looming outside the bedroom window of our apartment. As I frantically dialed my husband’s number on my Italian cell phone, thus began one of the strangest and most memorable days of our stint in Rome.
Dave, can you hear me?
I’m in the hallway outside of class, what’s wrong?
The Pope just resigned.
Twelve minutes later Dave arrived back at the apartment, breathlessly giving orders into the phone he held in one hand while using the other to pull his suit coat on in the world’s fastest costume change. A moment later he was out the door, and I looked over the balcony to see him running in pursuit of a bus headed east, towards the Tiber, and the basilica that loomed on the horizon. I wouldn’t see him again until well after midnight.
The day passed in a strange haze, similar to the feeling after 9/11, but lacking in the horror. It was still a deep feeling of unease though, as if the foundations of reality had tilted, somehow, and we were sliding off into an unknown place.
I fielded Skype calls and emails from home all afternoon. “Yes, it was true.” “Yes, he’s really resigning,” “No, it hasn’t happened in a really long time,” “Yes, the Pope can do such a thing.”
That night after dinner the sky darkened and a serious thunderstorm rocked the Eternal City, cutting short our evening trip to the Square to pray a Rosary and hold vigil under the still-lit window in the papal apartments (Francis doesn’t live there, so once Benedict vacated the See, we never saw those windows lit again).
As Tia (my little sister) and I trudged homeward with the stroller, dodging fat drops of rain and picking up speed as the weather deteriorated, we were mostly quiet, still very much in shock over the day’s events. Maybe a half-hour after we’d arrived home, the now-famous lightening bolt hit the dome of the Basilica, marking the day in the eyes of the world as one of strange and unsettling infamy.
We had our chance to say a very special goodbye to Pope Benedict about 2 weeks later, standing in that same Square on a sun-drenched Wednesday morning, tears in our eyes as he held my youngest son in his arms and gently kissed his forehead. We wept with gratitude and sorrow as his eyes found us in the crowd, and for a moment, as the guard handed my baby back into my arms, I locked eyes with the successor to Peter and simply mouthed the words Thank You.
My heart is filled with the same gratitude today, and just a touch of the grief, as I sit 5,000 miles away, nursing a new baby in a living room whose wall is graced with our family’s most prized image.