Backstage with The Arcada Theatre’s Ron Onesti

A Divine Meet ‘N Greet

If you have visited this column anytime over the past few years, you know that it never goes down the political, religious or social issue road.  I’m in show biz and that’s what this is always about, and why you read it.  But I must tell you about my recent opportunity for a face-to-face meeting with the Pope!  Yes! Pope Francis, the top rocker of the Catholic Church!  This is definitely NOT about views or positions.  I just REALLY want to tell you about my “backstage” experience at The Vatican in Rome!

I was in Italy with a delegation of Presidents of Italian American organizations from around the country to meet with high-level political and cultural figures to discuss ways of strengthening relationships between the two countries.  As President of The Joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans in Chicago, I had meeting after meeting the Minister of Cultural Affairs, leaders in education, various Mayors, Members of the Italian Parliament and a whole lot more!  There were even a couple of prosciutto and Parmesan cheese companies thrown in there!

It began with an initiative to bring the choir that performs at The Sistine Chapel to Chicago.  The choir is named after Domenico Bartolucci who was the Sistine Chapel Choir Director for decades until his passing in 2013.  He was so loved that the Pope made him a Cardinal for his contribution to the music of The Vatican.

They performed at a few venues in Chicago, including a benefit for Ukraine refugees at The Des Plaines Theatre.  Their presentation was magical as they performed some of opera’s “greatest hits”.  It gave the audiences chills as it responded with multiple standing ovations.

Back to Rome.

As we met with the Archbishop of a Church-owned home for financially challenged college students, we committed to support the initiative.  The director was so moved by our interest, he arranged for VIP seating at the Pope’s weekly Wednesday morning blessing in St. Peter’s Square outside the Vatican.  Just getting within viewing distance of The Pope is a rare opportunity!

It was a glorious day.  The vast design of the Vatican square seemed to “embrace” the thousands who were in attendance.  The many concrete statue set on the roof of The Vatican had a somewhat intimidating appearance and could come alive at any moment.  The deep sounds of ancient bells filled the air.  So many people from so many cultures!  From Polish to African, Arabic to South American, the peace and unity that was exhibited gave the event a great international vibe.

Not knowing what to expect, we got there early.  After about an hour, the audience began to rise in a similar fashion to that of a wave at a baseball game.  Electricity filled the air.  He was approaching!

He arrived in an enlarged golf-cart style vehicle.  The last time I saw that was back in 1981 after Pope John was shot and a bubble vehicle was created.  There was no bubble this time, though.  I was happy about that.  I was hoping that the challenging state of world affairs would not be underscored with a Papal OO7 vehicle.

Our VIP seats were directly behind him on his right.  We were just 50 feet away!  He actually looked towards our group and smiled!  And being on the railing, I though there maybe a shot at a drive-by “High-Five” when he left in the golf cart!

Our group was unexpectedly mentioned as the ceremony began, much to our delight.  It was an hour-long ritual spoken in Italian, English, German, Spanish, Arabic and Polish.  It was refreshing to be a part of such an inclusive ceremony.

After it was finished, we were told to wait in our seats.  Not knowing what was to come, we watched as Pope Francis met with his reverent College of Cardinals.  Next were newly ordained priests.  Then were a few quite obviously sick people there for special blessings.  There were even a few newlywed couples waiting for a personal nod from The Pope!

Then, our contact from The Vatican came to us and said, “The Pope will see you now.”

“Whaaaaaaaaaaat,” I said.  Is this really happening?  It all happened so fast!

The Vatican Police escorted us directly behind him as he sat on this throne-like Papal chair.  We were flanked by the colorful and ceremonial Swiss Guard. Once the group in front of us was finished, we were waved up, one by one.  I was placed to the Pope’s immediate left.

All of a sudden, reality hit!  I was looking down at that cap that he wears.  Thousands of people were looking at us.  I was actually next to the highest of all highs, especially if you are from Taylor Street! INCLUDING the Italian Americans’ “second trinity,” Sinatra, Martin and Bennett!

We explained who we represented and gave a very warm, grandfatherly smile.  He said, “Pray for me, this job is very difficult.”

I have never met a Pope before, but seeing photos and videos of other meetings made it seem to be a very stoic, rushed and protected situation.  We didn’t feel that, though.  He was welcoming and genuinely happy to see us.  He has a fabulous smile and spoke to us in Italian and in English.  He actually took my hand as if to help him focus on who was speaking to him.  Wait, was that The POPE’S hand?   I was excited when I hugged Kevin Costner!  But the Pope?  Come on!

Here is a guy originally from Argentina who at one time was a bouncer, who now recently celebrated his tenth anniversary being ordained Pope.  He is the first Pope from outside Europe since the 8th century!

As I am writing this on the plane back to O’Hare Airport, I can’t help but smile at this divine occurrence.  My personal star-struck experiences usually happen with people who have 20 million albums sold.  That’s nothing next to shaking the hand that blesses 1.5 BILLION people every day!

Both the event and The Pope definitely had a rock-star feel, complete with music, bodyguards, a huge sound system, a stage and a larger-than-life lead vocalist.  The only real difference is that HIS manager isn’t someone who demands green M&Ms and wants to be paid in cash.