I’m just back from my long-anticipated trip to Italy. In short, it was wonderful. I have about 500 pictures, and I don’t even want to pretend that I’ll capture it all here, given that it’s the holiday season and still crunch time at work. (Theoretically, there is a non-crunch time, but there are fewer and fewer sightings of that phenomenon.)
But there was a memory that particularly struck me, so I thought I’d share. Don’t take it as representative, because it mostly stands out because it was an outlier. There will one day be pictures, but that day is not today.
Sunday morning, we were getting ready to leave Rome. I went to an early Mass at one of the major basilicas in the city (I won’t say which one, in case it makes a difference in protecting it that I can’t see from here.) I walked there from our hotel. I came, first, to the back of the basilicas and saw barricades. That didn’t strike me as particularly unusual— I’d seen hundreds of barricades throughout our time there. I know Italy is full of tourists, my experience was that my fellow American tourists and I needed extra helpings of guidance and the Italians were good about not letting you get important things wrong, and we went through lots of checkpoints.
I walked around to the front. It was just before dawn, and I was caught up with the vision of walking into a quiet, darkened cathedral to pray and worship. I noticed quickly that the barricades extended along the front of the basilica. And they were closed. And guarded by armed military personnel. The barricades created a barrier in addition to closed gates and closed doors. I arrived about 15 minutes before Mass was to begin, so I thought, maybe, that it would just be a few minutes and they’d throw open the gates. But it struck me as strange that I was the only worshipper there. I thought maybe something (like a threat being made) had happened overnight and the schedule had changed. We’d been repeatedly warned against taking pictures of the military personnel, and my Italian was tentative at best. I figured approaching them and asking about the schedule would make me nervous and worsen whatever words I might otherwise have been able to string together. I saw people inside the basilica start to open doors and gates, but the barricades were unchanged. I stood there, trying to convey the universal sign of “benign but confused tourist befuddled by local ways and needing assistance,” but the military personnel didn’t engage with me.
About 7 minutes after I got there, a Franciscan priest approached. I wanted to run to him and shout “Pace e bene!” as our tour guide in Assisi had instructed us to do with the seminarians in Assisi and explain to him my predicament, but I had no guarantee he had English either. So I just followed him at a polite distance.
Soon, there were a small clutch of us, huddled at a spot near the military personnel. The celebrating priest (not the Franciscan), fully vested, peered out of the basilica at us. The clock struck the time for Mass. Still waiting.
A few minutes after Mass was to begin, police officers strolled up, and set up the metal detectors. A minute or so later, our small cadre silently filed through and into the darkened church. It was clear that this was not an unusual arrangement for the regulars— a small group of mostly older, mostly local people. I believe I was the only American.
Of course, I live in a post-9/11 world with the rest of us, and in the knowledge that mass shootings and stabbings happen, here, there and everywhere. I have family who have done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. And I repeatedly marched through security at the airport and customs and through dozens of security checkpoints and metal detectors on that trip. But somehow, this was what brought the face of terrorism into a new kind of clarity for me. Standing outside a church with nuns and a priest, late for Mass, watched by military holding loaded semiautomatic weapons in ways that made clear that they were not afraid to use them, looking through barricades and gates at a priest who is waiting for us, because given half a chance, someone would blow this gorgeous, hundreds of years old living monument to my faith and everyone in/near it, up.