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A Little Bit of Heaven on Earth


© St. Petersburg Times

ROME -- Please don't think me flippant but I recently sent up a prayer from St. Peter's Basilica.

Actually I went to the Eternal City to chase La Dolce Vita -- the sweet life epitomized by Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg in Federico Fellini's 1960 movie. I even took a room at the Excelsior Hotel, the elegant jet-set headquarters for the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Aga Khan.

I window-shopped the Via Condotti and sipped espresso at open-air cafes along the Via Veneto. One evening I even ate fettuccine at the original Alfredo's, slurping buttered noodles swirled with pungent Parmesan among the elegantly framed photos of La Loren and Signore Sinatra.

I was living the good life all right, but I hadn't seen any stars, even faded ones, so I was quizzing the Excelsior's concierge for new locales to tour one morning. "Well, you can always spot the Pope," he said.

"Really?" I replied. The fallen Catholic in me quivered but the autograph hound perked right up.

"Yes," he explained. "When he's in Rome he appears at St. Peter's at noon every Sunday to address the crowd."

Crowd indeed. On the clear, cold Sunday I went, thousands of people filled the wombish oval of St. Peter's Square. Fashionably dressed Romans on a short pilgrimage from across town mingled with hundreds who had journeyed from much farther away. A group of Mexicans sheathed themselves in bright hand-woven scarves, American couples wore their Sunday best, African women sported colorful wrap-arounds. A flock of habited nuns fluttered like pigeons near the gushing fountain.

While much of the crowd waited reverently, others celebrated. Near the obelisk, 30 Catalans locked arms and pranced through a Sardana. Yankee girls giggled.

Now, aging movie stars may know a thing or two about publicity, but surely a pope blazed the trail on making dramatic entrances. At a quarter to noon, a window high on the Apostolic Palace opens and two men unfurl a cardinal-red banner. For 15 minutes, the crowd watches the white-framed opening, expectantly. Then, precisely at noon, the drapery parts and John Paul II appears -- looking frail but waving benevolently.

The crowd first hushes, then bursts into boisterous applause. Hats come off and hundreds of pious hands fly from head to heart, shoulder to shoulder, as John Paul's voice, rich and full even in great age, caresses his flock. He reads for a time from notes, then looks up and gazes across the crowd, soon guiding it through a prayer.

"Amen," I hear myself chanting with a thousand other voices, noticing, a little startled, that my own head is bowed, that my own hands are interlocked.

In many languages they simply call him "Papa." The familiar handle is a loving metaphor for the way a billion of the Earth's inhabitants seem to think of him -- father, parent, family leader.

"Adios," he murmurs, disappearing behind his veil of curtain.

In for a penny, in for a pound, I turn toward the basilica itself. The embracing arms of the plaza give way to the strong shoulders of an immense facade. Eleven disciples and Christ himself parade across the parapet there, while beyond, receding from view as you approach, rises Michelangelo's dome, the heart of this body of stone.

In the entryway, a set of bronze keys sculpted into the marble flooring seems to say, "Here lie the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven."

Once inside, the space enclosed, nearly as vast as the great beyond, defies serenity. The eye soars up muscular piers to dance along curving arches toward the altar. At the crossing, the Baldachino, Bernini's spiral-columned canopy for the bones of St. Peter, writhes heavenward. This ornate icon first lures you physically down the broad aisle of the church, then its height carries your eyes skyward into the aura of the dome itself.

Architecturally, this is literally the apex of the Roman High Renaissance. Spiritually, however, it might be the very gateway to the Elysian fields, the transformative space between this hard-edged world and the gilded, cloud-cushioned chambers beyond. At the very top, a halo of light illuminates a mysterious figure, so far away you can hardly make him out.

I knew I had to go up there, climbing the same tilt-a-whirl stairway around which Mastroianni chased Ekberg. At the top lie two amazements:

The first is a panorama of Rome akin to glimpsing Earth from an upper ring of paradise. The second is a gift shop. I had never shopped atop a cathedral before, but here you can pick up crosses and rosaries as well as postcards and souvenirs.

Back downstairs, my purchases in a little Vatican bag, I surveyed the crowd. Most visitors were in their 40s and 50, some younger, some older. Everybody seemed to like the place. One couple from North Carolina said they most enjoyed the bronze statue of Peter flanked with candles; believers caress the fisherman's shoe as they utter a prayer. Another visitor told me he liked the grottos, the burial chambers below the church.

Two young Japanese visitors inadvertently got into a Holy Communion line. When the priest asked, "Christian?" they scurried away, aghast.

Hordes of nuns and priests traipsed through, but none looked ecstatic. Maybe they were just on their way to work.

And I saw only one person reading a Bible.

But I did see dozens of average Joes studying Michelangelo's Pieta.

It was odd: As tour groups came up, the men and women separated. The men stood to one side and talked about the sculpture itself: "Too bad it's behind glass now," says one man. "You can't really see any damage," adds another, both referring to the mad attack on the sculpture some years back.

On the other hand, women walked right up to the glass to gaze quietly at the dead Christ, draped across his mother's lap. One sad woman I was kind of staring at said, "I know how she feels." I looked at her quizzically. "I lost a son myself," she said, summing up Michelangelo's masterpiece better than all the art analysis I had ever read.

St. Peter's bustles with tour groups and people capturing Kodak moments. It has a lot of places to peer at popes but a paucity of spots to pray. So I was thinking, at least, until I noticed a sign and a man guarding a closed drape. The sign read, "Here is the place exclusively for prayer."

Drawing back the curtain is like penetrating the veil of heaven.

Inside lies a room coated in gold where full-size -- well, human-size -- angels hold aloft a bronze sepulcher, and paintings of God creating the world beam from all four walls. I sat down quietly in a pew. The next thing I knew I was on my knees, the aroma of incense braiding together childhood memories of sunny Sunday services and the 8-year-old boy who could put his hands on the back of the pew and rest his head there, daydreaming, pretending to pray.

Only this time I didn't pretend. Perhaps I had discovered La Dolce Vita after all. Patrick Soran is a freelance writer living in Denver. If you go Getting There: Several airlines fly from the United States to Rome, and Alitalia flies there direct from Miami. St. Peter's Basilica: The Basilica is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and in the summer till 7 p.m. There is no entrance fee. The dome is open from 8 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., till 6:15 in the summer, with an admission charge of 8,000 lire, about $5.

The grottos are open the same hours as the basilica at no charge. SC: PG: 1E CR: PATRICK SORAN CU: (1996) Pope John Paul II stands on the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica to address the crown and give the Urbi et Orbig blessing. CU: At the crossing, the Baldachino, Bernini's spiral-columned canopy for the bones of St. Peter, writhes heavenward, its immense size dwarfed by the scale of the architecture of St. Peter's Basilica.

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