My husband and I were standing with other tourists in the Vatican waiting for Sunday Mass to begin. No guidebook had been able to prepare us for the overwhelmingly beautiful treasures we were seeing. Michael Angelo’s Pieta was directly in front of us, then as we moved on, there was the burial site of the Apostle Peter. It was almost too much to comprehend.
As we moved around the enormous building, a side door opened and guards moved the crowd back. Velvet ropes were stretched across the area to keep us at a distance. Then, two by two, black robed men solemnly processed out of the room. Being raised protestant, I wasn’t sure what was going on. It was then, that I noticed a young man standing next to me who was wearing a long black cassock, so I assumed he would know what these men were doing.
I leaned over, summoned up my best Alabama — Italian accent and whispered, “Scusi, parla inglese?” which was supposed to mean, “Excuse me, but can you understand me if I start blabbering in English with a Southern accent?”
The young man casually whispered back, “Si . . . uh, yes. I’m from America.”
“We’re from Alabama.” I told him.
“Oh!” His eyes were big now. “I’m from Mobile!”
“HEY! We’re from Fairhope!”
They young man broke into a wide smile and said, “Well, actually, I’m from Daphne, but I didn’t think you would know where that was!”
“Not know Daphne? Why I practically live in their Target!”
Over the next fifteen minutes or so, we got to know our new Daphne — Roman friend, Nick Napolitano, who had graduated in 2009 from McGill-Toolen in Mobile. Nick enrolled in classes at St. Meinrab Seminary and School of Theology in Indiana and was now assigned to an internship at the Vatican. I had a quick flashback to my own internship experience which was in a moldy public school, where I caught two colds, one case of pink eye and had a five year old throw-up on my shoes. In contrast, the Vatican was a pretty good gig for a college kid.
As we were talking, I suddenly realized that Nick was even younger than I thought and in fact, was only about five years older than my own son. I had just started having anxiety about my son’s plans for starting college in some out of town location, yet here was another local young man who was half way around the world! How could his poor Mother stand it?
Call it being moved by the spirit, or being moved by Southern hospitality, I suddenly blurted out, “I’m sure your Mother would want me to give you this hug from all the people back home in Alabama!” And with that, right there in the Vatican underneath a centuries old marble statue of a saint, I threw my arms around Nick Nipolitano and gave him an old fashioned, down — home neck huggin’.
Being true to his polite Southern upbringing, Nick acted grateful, but I suddenly panicked. Not being familiar with the Catholic rule book, I was afraid I had just violated some kind of “look, but don’t hug” policy. We snapped a quick photo of our new friend, then headed out to hear the Pope’s beautiful address to the crowd.
Later that day, still concerned about my possible breach of church etiquette, my husband and I sat in a piazza and watched the locals walk by. Children of all ages were playing near a fountain as their Italian Mamas animatedly chatted nearby. When it was time for them to leave, every single woman started moving around, vigorously hugging the necks, kissing the foreheads, and pinching the cheeks of all the children, even the older teenagers. I hadn’t seen that many Mothers hug and go-on over their children since my son’s first day of school at the K-1 Center.
My guilt over attacking poor Nick in the Vatican with a heaping dose of Southern maternal hospitality was assuaged a bit by knowing that Mothers in Alabama, Italy, and probably worldwide, have the same feelings of nurturing love towards all children, no matter who they belong to or where they may be.
And I think the Pope’s own Mother would completely understand.
This article first appeared in the Gulf Coast Newspapers.Â