I first heard that it was possible to meet the Pope and visit the Vatican from my cousin, who was studying to be a priest in Rome. According to him, this ultimate Catholic pilgrimage didn’t require much: just submitting an application beforehand. So my newly married husband and I decided to take one day off from our holiday in Vienna for a Roman sojourn, to meet Pope Francis.
After arriving in Rome on a rainy September evening in 2013, I woke up early the next morning so I had time to drape my heavy, six-metre silk wedding sari. But also so I could make my leisurely way through the heavenly spread of freshly baked goods and creamy butter at our breakfast buffet. Later, walking down the streets of Rome, in an off-white Kanchipuram sari with a contrasting deep blue Tommy Hilfiger bag, I felt every bit a fashionista.
We reached the Vatican gates about three hours before the papal audience, joining the sea of people queueing up for the security check. There was a special box for newly married couples where we found a spot in the second row. I wished we’d arrived five minutes earlier so we could have been up front, but we needn’t have worried; the Pope actually blesses every couple after his sermon.
I must confess that all through our holiday planning process, I was not particularly excited about the opportunity to meet the Pope, but I was still left speechless after it happened. The simplicity of Pope Francis was touching, and he seemed more enthusiastic to meet the people who had come to see him than even they were. We even managed to get his autograph on a card. “Pray,” he uttered as he blessed us, “Don’t forget.” Later, I read that Pope Francis is known for asking people to pray for him.
To add to the special shine of the day, the crowd at the audience shouted “Auguri!” (best wishes) and “Bella!” (beautiful) as we walked back from the stage after meeting the Pope. Struck by the novelty of my sari, people kept asking for photographs while they continued to shout “Auguri!” to all the married couples. It felt like a red carpet experience, even though the photographs betrayed my lack of sari-draping skills and of sunscreen.
Over the course of the day, we visited St. Peter’s Basilica, caught a glimpse of the Vatican gardens, and observed the Swiss Guard. The sight of tourists posing with the guards at the Vatican gates is a common one, however not many are aware that this tiny army is also one of the deadliest, with an oath of loyalty to the Pope dating back to 1506. Stoic as they may seem, they could probably shred one to pieces in seconds.
We were so thirsty for Italy’s culture that we skipped lunch to save time, only stopping to drink water from Rome’s many fountains. Wikipedia lists 50 monumental fountains in Rome, and there are over 2,000 in all, more than any other city in the world. (The city’s water supply is carefully distributed through these even today.) The sparkle of the water on ancient stone felt like an extension of the Pope’s benediction, and the warmth of the people we met that day made it feel like an unexpected bonus wedding reception.
Papal audience The schedule and procedure for the papal audience is online at www.papalaudience.org. Papal audience tickets are free; to make a reservation, download the form here, fill it in and fax it to the prefecture. Newly-weds are blessed one-by-one by the Pope, within eight weeks of their marriage. One can carry small gifts or cards for the Pope, or items to be blessed by him. The Vatican is open all year round.
Stay There are many convents open to visitors within the Vatican, especially as the number of nuns and priests have now reduced. Besides being easy on the pocket, they are also strategically located near the Vatican gates. We stayed at a convent operated by the Figlie della Presentazione di Maria Santissima al Tempio, for around €64/approx. ₹4,600 a night for a double room, inclusive of breakfast. The convent is near St. Peter’s Basilica, and has simple, non-AC, single and double rooms.