Today, those of us who read the Vatican Information Service read Pope Benedict’s greetings to the people of the town of Castelgandolfo, near Rome, where he has gone to spend some of the summer months as the Pope does each year. This year, he said, in greeting the people who had assembled to welcome him, “Here I have the mountain, the lake, and you good people!”
It reminds me of the first time I ever saw a Pope. The year was 1972; I had been asked to serve as chaplain to a group of pilgrims going to Rome and other shrines. Paul VI was Pope at the time, and we went out in our tourist bus to visit him at the papal villa in Castelgandolfo. The day was hot, and we were fortunate in being able to remain outside in a garden where we could hear the Pope’s words via loudspeaker and enjoy the cooler and fresher air than inside the building. When the audience was over, the Holy Father came outside, got into the portable throne at the door, and when the men who carried that chair lifted its supports to their shoulders, there suddenly appeared the Supreme Pontiff, in his white cassock and red cloak, seeming to float over the crowd as the bearers made their way down the length of the garden where we were assembled. My first view of a Pope! I can remember the thrill of it, the joy of a young priest (I was 42 at the time) experiencing the presence of the Vicar of Christ for the first time. On a later trip to Rome, I was with another group who were able to visit Pope John Paul II in the courtyard of the papal villa. The town of Castelgandolfo is an ancient settlement in what is called the Roman Campagna, or countryside. It is perched on the top of a mountain that drops sharply down to the lake of Albano, which can be seen clearly from the main piazza of the town in front of the papal villa. Beautiful terrain! The papal villa there enjoys Vatican extraterritoriality, so that the tourists and pilgrims who wish to do so can mail letters and postcards with Vatican postage there.
Paul VI was an Italian; John Paul II was Polish, and Benedict XVI is German. All of them have commented on the beauty of this spot when, by custom, they have gone to spend some of the hotter weather of the summer there. It is not all vacation, by any means. The papal schedule is somewhat relaxed, but the work of the Bishop of Rome goes on and usually, the Pope returns to the Vatican each Wednesday to grant the general audience to the great crowds who assemble in Saint Peter’s Square. Sometimes he makes the trip by car; sometimes by helicopter. It is interesting to find anything as modern as a helicopter landing pad in the ancient and venerable surroundings of the Vatican, in the heart of Rome. Thank you for seeking God’s truth. God bless you. Father Victor Brown, O.P.
Note: This message was composed some years ago.