I was on pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee Year in 2000 when I met Ian. You see, I was hard up at the time and I wanted to save money so I opted not to pay a single room supplement which meant sharing with a stranger.
At the airport I was eyeing up all the other men on their own and spotted this rangy looking chap in jeans leaning against the wall smoking a roll up ciggie. He’s bald, fiftyish, with a tough outdoor tan. Turns out he was the guy and he was an Irish bricklayer named Ian. I don’t mind, but he’s not too pleased. He says to me on the first night, “So you’re one of those clever ones who writes books are you? Well, why am I in a room with you? I’m just a bricklayer.” He’s smoking another rollie, sitting on the windowsill with the window open so he doesn’t foul the room. I can tell he’s also looking out the window for the nearest bar, so thinking fast I said, “Well, Jesus was a carpenter so I reckon you’re probably closer to him than I am.” He gives me a Clint Eastwood squint and smile so we’re friends.
The thing is, Ian didn’t know about doing the seven basilicas as part of a Roman pilgrimage. I did. So now he’s starting to be grateful that he’s lodging with a book-guy. So we go trotting off together to the Lateran, San Lorenzo, Santa Maria Maggiore etc. Finally we end up at Santa Croce in Gerusalemme and I tell him the story of the Empress Helena and he’s agog and amazed that anybody has so much knowledge and I tell him that if I built a brick wall it would fall down so we’re even.
Then we enter the chapel of relics, and I’m skeptical. By now I’m a Catholic but the old Protestant, “Relic of the True Cross sure sure. Pull the other one” attitude is still lurking about. So I’m looking around not really believing that this is the nail from the cross or that is the title board or this is the splinter of the true cross or that is the cross beam from the good thief’s cross. Then I see Ian peering at another reliquary. “Look Father!” He says. (He kept calling me ‘Father’ even though I wasn’t ordained at the time) “Look, here’s the finger bone of St Thomas!”
I see he believes it all. No doubts. Then I see he’s weeping. Sobbing like a baby. Wiping his eyes with an old hankie. I’m still detached and being all intellectual. Then he says, “Don’t you think we should do the Stations Father?”
“Why sure. That’s a nice idea.”
“Will you lead us please?”
So I gather a group of other pilgrims together and get my pilgrim prayer book and move out of detached curious museum mode into true Catholic pilgrim mode. Before long I’m sniffling too and Ian’s done me a lot of good.
I start thinking about it all and realize that it was the finger bone of St Thomas that did the trick. Thomas who is known for doubting. Thomas who had to make sure. Thomas who stood back and didn’t have the heart. Thomas who was also converted in the end and now it doesn’t matter to me if it is really St Thomas’ finger or not. I’m convinced that the worth of the relic is something greater. It made me think.
It opened my head, and more importantly–it opened my heart.
The next night I was walking back to our hotel from getting lost in Rome and I spot Ian at a sidewalk table outside a bar and he’s turning on the old blarney with a couple of seminarians in their dog collars. He hails me in a loud voice and insists on buying me a drink. Now, one of the reasons I was in Rome was because I was also researching a novel—one of those papal potboilers about the last pope and the end of the world and so forth. One of the things I wanted to do was to get into the Vatican gardens behind St Peter’s in the heart of the Vatican City.
It turns out the two seminarians are Ethiopians and I happen to know that the Pontifical Ethiopian College is situated smack dab in the middle of the Vatican Gardens. So I ask the seminarians if it is possible to have a tour.
“Of course!” they say. “Meet us at St Anne gate at 10 tomorrow.”
As I’m walking (or perhaps staggering) home with Ian he says, “What’s St Anne’s Gate. What’s the College?”
So I tell him and the next day we meet the seminarians and tour the college and the whole Vatican Gardens, and then when we’re leaving, walking down the hill to exit through the gate on the left side of St Peters a Swiss Guard motions us to stop. So we stop and see there’s a black car coming out from an underground exist from St Peter’s and we ask the Swiss Guard jokingly, “Is it the Holy Father?”
He nods solemnly and the next moment the car pulls up the hill and drives past us. Ian is on his knees, “Omigod It’s the Holy Father Pope John Paul himself!”
And it was.
By this time I also on my knees and that’s how Pope John Paul II gave me and my bricklayer friend his apostolic blessing.