|The counter at Pasticceria Al Duomo in Albano.|
"How was the trip? Did you see the Pope?" wondered a colleague I hadn't seen since the end of the academic year.
The Pope? What?
In late May through early June I spent about three weeks at the Vatican Observatory in the hills outside Rome, visiting with colleagues there (in March I was appointed an adjunct scholar of the Observatory, one of nine on the staff) and enjoying the chance to explore the Observatory library's collection of historical materials (which includes such marvels as Maria Agnesi's book on calculus, thought to be the first published math treatise by a woman).
The biannual Vatican Observatory summer school (VOSS) for young astronomers was on while I was there, and it was great to be able to pop into lectures about planetary geology or comets. I shared delicious lunches with the faculty coming to teach and with students from 21 different countries. I tagged along on their field trip to Tivoli to see the famous water gardens. And to the private audience they had with Pope Francis.
|VOSS audience with Pope Francis. I am on the right side, toward the back.|
To say that feels like a show stopper, an experience that effaces all the rest, and so I haven't written about it. But a few days ago, I happened upon Garret Gundlach, SJ's reflection at the Jesuit Post whose Jesuit confrere's only question about his time in another iconic spot, Yellowstone, was "Did you see a grizzly bear?" "Yes," he sighs, "I saw a grizzly bear." But wait, he says, there's more.
We live in a time where icons and logos help us thread our way through an overwhelming amount of information. I'm grateful for those easy to recognize signs when I'm trying to find the train to the airport in the chaos of Termini station, or the app on my phone that gives me a weather report. But like Gundlach, I worry about reducing each other's experiences — to say nothing of each other — to a set of binary flags. Did you see a grizzly bear? the Liberty Bell? the Pope? Are you liberal or conservative? Democrat or Republican? Catholic or Muslim? Immigrant or citizen?
Asunta and Gina at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences while
we waited to meet Pope Francis.
I met the Pope, I shook his hand, I made him laugh when my tongue got tangled around a Spanish word. It was an extraordinary experience, do not mistake me. But there's more, and all of it equally outside the bounds of my ordinary life.
I met the woman in the coffee shop, who helped me navigate the midmorning scrum at the counter, and taught me the name of my favorite sweet rolls. Her smile lit up my mornings, it still does when I think of it. I met Gina and Asunta, who cooked for us, who put our lunches together for the field trips and came with us, too. I wish I could wear a red leather jacket with Asunta's panache! I met the woman in the local shop who helped me pick out cheeses and salumi, and made sure I got some of the local bread to have with it. I met Jinia, a young astrochemist from India, another chemist among all these astronomers. These were extraordinary experiences, too, to travel a quarter of the way around the world in a few hours, to be in a place and for a moment, to be part of it, not just part of the background, but seen for who I am.
There's more! In another moment of interesting parallels, Gundlach notes: BUT YELLOWSTONE IS A SUPERVOLCANO! Albano sits on a volcano, too, and it's not as dormant as people thought. Check out the article, the aerial photo is incredible!
You can watch a bit of the audience at Vatican TV, here (in Italian), and listen to a report in English from Vatican Radio here.