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Inside the synod hall -- for morning prayer only


The synod is closed to the media, which gets daily summaries of its work from Vatican officials. Accredited journalists are allowed to enter the synod hall upon written request to observe morning prayers. The synod takes place within Vatican walls in the Pope Paul VI chambers. I petitioned one day last week and was told to arrive at the Vatican gates at 8:30 in the morning. The synod begins at nine.

Precisely at 8:30, I approached two Swiss guards standing at the designated gate. Neither spoke English nor seemed to understand why I wanted to enter the Vatican. After some minor negotiations, one walked to a small guardhouse and returned with a piece of paper with my name on it. I was told to walk through the gate and up a road to the synod chamber.

Some 30 yards up a road that runs adjacent to St. Peter’s basilica, two Vatican security guards dressed in suits and wearing earphones stopped me. Neither spoke English, but they seemed to understand my intent. They then asked me to walk to and stand in the middle of a parking lot. I did.

I waited for 20 minutes before three women, two in suits and one in a dress down to her ankles, approached me. “Tom Fox,” one said. They did not introduce themselves or appear welcoming in any way.

“Follow us,” one said. I followed. As we entered the building, two Swiss Guards who stood at the doorway saluted me. One of the women pointed to a stairway and told me to accompany them up the narrow stairs. On the second floor we walked down a hallway and turned a corner, entering the synod hall, which seats about 300. It’s a steep room. Rows descend as one moves to the front. Facing the seats is a long desk behind which the pope sits with synod officials on each side.

The seats are equipped with earphones for translations. When I arrived, the room was about half filled with bishops mingling. The atmosphere was friendly. I spoke to several bishops as we waited for the morning session to begin. Nearly 10 minutes past the hour, one of the women called me to my designated seat in the back row on the far end. It was roped off at one end. She told me to enter from the other end and sat next to me. I had the feeling of being fenced in.

All the bishops were in their seats as Pope John Paul II arrived. He shuffled slowly into the hall, hardly lifting his feet, stooped and balancing himself with his cane, which he held in his right hand. I am told he gets stronger in the afternoon, but this morning he looked very weak. The bishops began to clap gently and reverently. He is not only the pope, but he is an old man approaching his eighth decade -- the decade of life of highest wisdom in the traditional cultures of much of Asia.

The pope usually says something to begin the day, a sentence or a quip. Leaning forward toward the microphone he said something in Latin about St. Mark, whose feast was being celebrated. His words are barely audible, and most of the bishops do not understand spoken Latin. It is doubtful that most understood his words, but the bishops responded with laughter. These bishops are nothing if not polite. (The Associated Press later reported that the pope jokingly had made a play on the words St. Mark and St. Martha, the latter being the name of the facility where the next papal consistory will be held.) Two seconds later, John Paul began morning prayers in Latin with the sign of the cross.

The bishops, reading from small prayer books, prayed in Latin. It was a dialogue, the prayers of the day. The pope’s voice was weak, shallow, his words at times slurred. Dressed in white, his broad, once strong shoulders stooped, he was still imposing. He almost always looked down as he stood behind the desk.

He looks old, but everyone describes him as determined to lead the church into the next millennium. They have just announced that he will visit St. Louis next year. A Vatican official told me he doubts the pope will make the trip. “By then he will be bedridden,” the official said. One wonders.

Pope John Paul clearly enjoys being with the bishops. He dines with small groups of synod delegates each evening. A Japanese bishop who ate with him affectionately called him a “grandfather figure,” meaning not one to change his ways.

Within a few minutes the prayer was over, and my escorts were signaling me with hand gestures that it was time to leave the room. The work of the day was to begin.

One of the primary themes of the gathering is evangelization. The irony is that, without broadcasting the meeting to the corners of the earth, without using the good will and technologies at their disposal, those gathered are missing a superb opportunity to evangelize. But journalists are forbidden. It was time for my exit.

National Catholic Reporter, May 8, 1998