The Hand of the Hand of God: Meeting the Pope in Rome

By Jane Mountain | March 28, 2013

This morning was rainy and dreary so we stayed inside, ate a leisurely breakfast and then sat in the lounge, writing, editing pictures, and planning our next move. I was happily working away until suddenly I realized we were sitting in a basement looking at my computer when I should be outside, experiencing Rome.

Before we could go explore, we needed to tune up our bikes, make sure all the moving parts were moving, the tires were pumped, and the brakes weren’t broken. We took a little spin around the back streets near our hotel to check our handiwork. Everything seems in order, so tomorrow we should be good to ride.

After heading out for yet another vegan lunch, this time at a macrobiotic restaurant where everything was vegan, gluten free, and overpriced, we hopped on the metro and headed for Vatican City.

vegan food in italy

Vegan food, even in Italy.

Note to vegans: Don’t believe anyone who says it will be hard to be vegan in Italy. Pizza is commonly made without cheese and there are about six hundred delicious variations on Spaghetti Pomodoro.

In the Land of God

We soon joined a throng of tourists winding their way up the outside of the Vatican walls. Expecting an unbearable line to enter, we were surprised when we just walked right in (after paying 32 Euros, of course). It soon became clear that the way the Vatican Museum is organized, is that it’s not really organized. There is no crowd control, save for a few ropes keeping you from actually touching the items on display.

This results in an experience not unlike LA freeways. Everyone is bottlenecked in a few choice spots, trying to squeeze through passages too narrow. Unlike LA freeways, the whole problem is caused by tour groups, who convene in the tiniest spaces for long stretches while a bored tour leader tells her bored patrons about something they will not remember five minutes from now.

To get to the Sistine Chapel you are routed through a series of rooms, all proudly displaying antiquities from places like Syria, Egypt, and Thailand. Looking at these treasures from far away, it struck us that Catholics must have had a very loose interpretation of Thou Shalt Not Steal back in the day. Passing through room after room lined with armory cupboards, we also wondered how the pillaging of foreign countries worked into the morality of the church (assuming that’s not an oxymoron).

Of course, the stunning amount of wealth on display at the Vatican seems greatly at odds with the Christian message, and I am genuinely surprised that your poor, huddled masses did not rise up centuries ago and tear down the Vatican stone by stone by stone. But hey, I’m just a heathen from Canada. What do I know?

dome in rome

Spending so much time indoors contemplating life’s big mysteries seemed to finally bring my jet lag to the fore, and I was soon dragging my feet, eyes unfocused, through one of the world’s “greatest” sights. Finally, after what seemed like hours of being far too close to other smelly tourists, we made it into The Sistine Chapel.


Um, no, actually, there was no voice of angels singing as we joined several hundred other people in the dim space. The only voices we heard were those of the extremely loud (and seriously angry) security guards yelling:

No photos! Sir, I will remove you from this space! Do you want to be removed? Put that camera away! No photos, no photos!

And then a few seconds later, another security guard would loudly shush everyone and remind them that there was to be no talking.

Amidst this racket, we gazed up at the wonder of Michelangelo’s famous ceiling. I have never been much of an appreciator of religious art, and in my sweaty, cynical, jet lag haze, today was no exception.

OK, OK, it is an amazing accomplishment. But they really didn’t know when to say when back then, decoration-wise. Is moderation a modern word? Every surface is covered with a different pattern and color, adding a cacophony of visual noise to the aural noise that had been attacking us all day.

Que Pasa, Papa?

Back outside, my zombie-state was not improving, but still, we wanted to go over to St. Peter’s just for a few minutes. We were almost there when stumbled upon a huge crowd, chanting some slogan in Italian and entirely blocking the street.

We were hoping it was some form of protest, but then Stephen overheard a conversation nearby.

The pope was coming!!!

What's the Sistine Chapel really like? And how does it feel to (almost) meet The Pope. We dish it all right here...

All I could think was, “Oh, no, now Stephen will want to wait and I’ll be stuck half-asleep on the street corner in yet another crowd for God knows (literally) how long. And that’s just what happened. The crowd built. More and more police arrived. Cars trying to drive down the street lined up and honked, but none was allowed through.

crowd waiting to see the pope

An anxious crowd and Jane.

At one point, a woman approached me.

“Que pasa?” she asked.

“Il Papa,” I answered.

Her reaction was exactly that of a 5-year-old on first seeing Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. First, a glimmer of disbelief and then utter, unbridled ecstasy.

I guess this is the point where I say (to no one’s surprise) that I just don’t get it. What’s the big deal about The Pope? Is it the same reaction people would have if Kim Kardashian were to wander by? They don’t really care about her, obviously, but they find something compelling in her fame?

Or is everyone convinced that this really is The Hand of God on Earth? I expect the latter.

Especially after Stephen’s class last night, which was about following the true leader within yourself, worshipping an elderly man with Middle Ages morals and a shitload of wealth at his disposal seems the opposite of sensible.

I had plenty of time to muse on these ideas while waiting for The Pope. Finally the crowds surged forward and an excited murmur grew. I hoisted myself up on some fencing to get a better view. Cheers went up, a car drove into view. I saw Stephen (in the front of the crowd, naturally) gesticulate a peace sign.

And then a truck full of three blue-collar workers drove by. People cheered and laughed as they passed, but I thought, why not? It’s no more random than worshipping the person we were actually waiting for.

An aeon later (may have been more like 20 minutes) another murmur arose and a few cars moved slowly down the road. The windows were heavily tinted. From my vantage I could see nothing but the glisten of highly polished black paint. And then, in the second car, a window rolled down. As it passed, we caught a glimpse of a ringed hand waving out the window.

We had just seen the hand of The Hand of God!


  1. Comment by Sarah

    Sarah April 3, 2013 at 1:47 am

    I tried to go to the Sistine Chapel on two separate occasions and it was closed. Now after all these years I don’t feel so bad about it anymore!

    Very humorous writing, Jane (“Thou shalt not steal” – tee hee!). I’m going to enjoy following your adventures :)

  2. Comment by Kimberly

    Kimberly March 29, 2013 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you both for such vivid and wonderful stories of your journey. I am like so many others – living vicariously through your trek. My soon-to-be son in law is Romanian and will be in Moldova and Cluj area until mid-May when he arrives in the US to be married to my daughter. I noticed that your map indicates you’ll be routing through Romania. I’m not sure if there’s anything he can do, but if you want tips or suggestions, I’m sure he’d be happy to provide. Good luck and hope that jet lag eases soon.

  3. Comment by Gretel

    Gretel March 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    Hi Jane & Stephen, I am loving your blog. I remember being at the Vatican and Sistine Chapel years ago, and you’re right, all I remember are the crowds and agitation. On the other hand, I rode my bike around New Zealand and have terrific memories of silence and gratitude. One time a family pulled up in a minivan. They were listening to music and eating ice cream. For a moment, I wanted to get in the minivan, eat ice cream, and quit riding. But once I got on my bike again, I had immense appreciation for being able use my own power to travel and the ability to really see, feel, and experience where I was because of the slow pace and being outside. So you have that to look forward to!

    Thanks for the afternoon distraction! I look forward to more blog posts.

  4. Comment by Rachel Juarez-Carr

    Rachel Juarez-Carr March 29, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    My mum is so very excited about this. (When my parents were going on holiday to Rome a few years ago, my dad referred to it as “your mother reporting to HQ”.)

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