It was September 2004. I was conference director for Legatus, the organization of Catholic CEOs, and each September the group traveled to Rome.
In my years planning pilgrimages for Legatus, we typically had reserved seating on the dais beside the Holy Father during the Wednesday General Audience. After the Audience, we’d pose for a group photo with the Pope, gathered around his chair. (There I am with my husband, barely visible at the far left.)
In 2004, however, Pope John Paul II was sick with the flu and missed the Audience. In his place that week was Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who received us in the Paul VI Hall due to inclement weather. (This time I’m on the far right, with Tom Monaghan and Fr. Joseph Fox.)
But by the following Saturday, we were still in Rome; the pope had recovered and we asked, Was there any chance that we could visit on Saturday, before we returned to the United States?
Wonder of wonders, Bishop James Harvey, the pope’s personal secretary at the Prefecture of the Papal Household, replied in the affirmative. He wondered, Could we come to the Apostolic Palace?
Well, Y-E-S!!! Yes, we could do that!!!
We cancelled our planned trip to Castel Gandolfo, and on Saturday morning, our group lined up at the Bronze Door, an imposing door at the rear of the right colonnade. We were greeted by the Swiss Guard, the soldiers who guard the Holy Father, their colorful uniforms designed by Michelangelo. The guards stood at attention, then struck the floor with their halberds, or pole weapons—the echo evoking ahh’s from our group of excited pilgrims.
Once cleared, we were led up a long staircase. At the top of the stairs was a trompe l’oeil (French: “fool the eye”) painting which made it appear as though the path continued onward a great distance. Unfortunately, I can’t find a photo of the art; so here, for your entertainment and edification, is another trompe l’oeil work which graces the ceiling of the Vatican Museum.
Once at the top, we were led to an open walkway which faced onto the courtyard of the Apostolic Palace.
Here we were to wait until a contingent including the President of the Philippines completed their state visit. I know that the elaborate frescoes in this hallway are rarely seen, and so I’ve included some here.
Finally, we passed through a gauntlet of Swiss Guards, bayonettes held in an arch over our heads. We were led through several small galleries where we gawked at the Throne of Constantine, two of the four existing tapestries designed by the artist Raphael, and countless works of precious art.
Finally, we entered the Papal Library, where the pope receives heads of state and foreign dignitaries. I recall that the room had just been remodeled, the wallpaper was fresh and there was a strong smell of wet paint.
Pope John Paul II was seated at the end of the room, beneath a large painting of Mary being crowned Queen of Heaven.
We were each introduced by name; when I approached, my former boss Tom Monaghan said, “Your Holiness, this is Kathy Schiffer, an executive of Legatus.” I bent and kissed his ring, and he gave me his personal blessing.
That’s all folks—What else could a person say, EVER, after that moment?