Nonfiction essay from Dan Morey

 A Vatican Adventure


Dan Morey


“Are you sure we’re allowed to see the pope?” said Mother, as our bus rumbled along the Tiber. “We’re not Catholic.”


“Of course we’re not allowed,” I said. “If the Swiss Guards find out we’re Lutheran they’ll spear us on the spot. Just last week they beheaded a Methodist on charges of ecclesiastical espionage.”


“Haw, haw.”


We got off at Castel Sant’Angelo, and made our way to St. Peter’s. The approach was designed to be awe-inspiring, and it is. As you walk the column-hugged piazza toward the towering façade and cathedral dome, you can’t help but feel small—a tiny soul in God’s vast universe.

We entered the basilica, and were dumbstruck by its absurd proportions. Half the churches in our hometown could’ve fit inside.


“It’s huge,” said Mother. “But pretty. I like the angels.”


We looked at Michelangelo’s Pietà, and rubbed the burnished toe of St. Peter. Around noon, people started filing out to hear the pope’s Sunday blessing. We followed a procession of priests and subalterns into the square, which now contained a raucous crowd. There were church groups in fluorescent t-shirts holding banners and waving umbrellas; they screamed and chanted and hopped up and down.


“Are they waiting to see the pope or Bon Jovi?” I said.


Soon we were engulfed in the throng. They jostled, pushed, kneed and clawed their way forward in an effort to get closer to the Papal Palace. A crimson carpet appeared in a high window, and the excitement level escalated from “rock concert” to “World Cup final.”


Just as the crowd seemed ready to riot, the pontiff emerged. A great wave of “ahhs” rose up to greet him. From where we were standing I could only make out a white robe and tall hat. There was a face, but it might’ve been anyone’s.


“How do we know that’s the pope?” I said.


“Who else would it be?” said Mother.


“A double. You know, in case of an assassination attempt.”


“Zoom in on him,” she said, handing me her camera.


I scrutinized the distant visage through the lens and saw a definite resemblance. “But that doesn’t prove anything,” I said. “The Vatican has a secret team of plastic surgeons.”


“Shut up and listen.”


The pope (or whoever he was) extended his arms over the sea of faithful and welcomed us in various languages. I wish I could’ve paid attention to what he was saying, but there’s something about the tone of religious speakers that causes my mind to drift.


As the pope blessed, I pondered an array of stimulating topics. Some of my thoughts were: Is Audrey Hepburn really the cutest thing ever in Roman Holiday, or was that Sandra Dee in Gidget? Wait a minute. Wasn’t the second Gidget movie set in Rome? No, the second movie was Gidget Goes Hawaiian. The third movie was Gidget Goes to Rome. Or was it Gidget Goes Roman? No, it was Gidget Goes to Rome. But is Sandra Dee even in that one? Or is it the other girl? Deborah Walley. No, she’s in Gidget Goes Hawaiian. There was a third Gidget in Gidget Goes to Rome. A redhead. Or was Deborah Walley the redhead? Or were they both redheads? There’s a different Gidget in every movie, but Moondoggie is always the same—James Darren. How do you spell “Darren?” Maybe he was related to Bobby Darin. Bobby Darin was married to Sandra Dee.


“C’mon, Daniel,” said Mother. “He’s finished.”




“The pope.”


She took me by the hand and led me out of the piazza. I felt like a child again, leaving church after a long service.


“Mummy,” I said. “Who was your favorite Gidget?”


“You never could make it through a sermon,” she said.


“Sandra Dee?”


“Or even a dinner blessing. They always gave you the fidgets.”


“Deborah Walley?”


“Sally Field, you fool. She was the cutest thing ever.”




We’d heard there were some impressive gardens at the Vatican, so we walked around the wall, looking for an entrance. Swiss Guards manned every gate.


“This calls for a plan,” I said.


“Don’t get crazy,” said Mother.


I decided we’d wait at the busiest access point until the guard was occupied, and then enter casually, behind his back. The result of this strategy, brilliant though it seemed, was a confrontation with an armed, highly suspicious Swiss.


“How can I help you?” he said.


He was a large man, but not particularly threatening. If the Swiss Guards really want to scare people they should consider ditching the striped blouses and pantaloons. They might want to downplay the whole Swiss thing, too.


“We’re going to the gardens,” I said.


“For the gardens you must have an appointment and a guide. This can be arranged at the Vatican Museum.”


“We just want to do a walk-through. No need for the grand tour.”


“This is not possible.”


He was taking his job very seriously, as all Swiss Guards do. They’ve been protecting the pontiff, and vowing to die in his defense, since 1506. Applicants for the post must be single Catholic males between the ages of nineteen and thirty who have completed basic training in the Swiss military, including a master’s course in the Swiss Army knife. They must also exceed 5’ 8 1/2” in height. This was not an issue for the hulk blocking our path. Mother barely came up to the hilt of his sword.


“Couldn’t we just take a quick look?” I said.




“But we’re leaving tomorrow and Mother—”


“I’m sorry.”


“But Mother—”


“This is not possible.”


He stood stern and unsmiling. Had the Swiss no sentiment? No mothers?


“We’re Catholic,” I said.


“I cannot allow you to pass. If you would like to see the gardens, please go to the museum and make arrangements. Good day.”


That was that. Rebuffed by a man in stripy spats. We slunk away.


“We could take the tour,” suggested Mother.


“Thirty euros so some pontifical gardener can point out the difference between a phlox and a nasturtium? It’s outrageous. A less mature person might be tempted to throw a tantrum.”


“Let’s go home before you make a scene.”


I balled up my fists, shook them in the air, and shrieked, “I don’t want to go home, Mummy!”


“C’mon, we’ll get you a nice bottle of Peroni.”


“And some pizza bianca?”


“Yes, and some pizza bianca. You’ll forget all about that mean old soldier.”

Dan Morey is online at where you can read more of his work.