I was honored last year to be chosen to speak at the 1st Vatican Adult Stem Cell Conference. I am also honored this year to accept a second invitation to speak in April of this year. The Vatican has always held a special place in my heart not only because I was brought up Catholic, but also because of a special trip I took there with my parents.
In the 90’s, long before kids, I found out my father was very ill. I knew this would likely be his last major excursion, so I asked him where he wanted to go. He said he wanted to see the Pope. He was a devout Catholic who always attended Mass seven days a week, so this made perfect sense. The problem was that I had no idea how to make this happen. After doing some pre-Internet era research in guide books, I figured out that you could write a letter to the Bishop’s Office for US Visitors to the Vatican in Rome and petition them for tickets for an Audience. I put my mom in charge of faxing this letter to Italy, which turned out to be two edged sword.
The problem began because my mother had never before used a fax machine, but there was one in my father’s home office. In her 1920’s mind, a fax was like writing a letter-a two way exchange of information. So she faxed it once and when they didn’t fax back, she just kept faxing it, thinking they weren’t getting her “letter”. In addition, she had multiple members of our family and several friends fax the same letter after being certain there was something wrong with my dad’s fax machine.
My father was wheelchair bound at that point and there were no shortage of onlookers who thought my wife and I were nuts for trying to take a disabled man halfway around the world. In fact, we quickly learned the hard way, that Europe in the 90’s was anything but disabled friendly. Their fears seemed to be immediately confirmed by my block head move at an Italian truck stop.
Since this was our first trip to Europe, we had decided that it was a good idea to buy a much cheaper ticket to Milan and rent a car to drive the 5 hours to Rome. After having slept two hours all night on a plane, this turned out to be not such a good idea. We stopped to get large amounts of coffee at a small place off the highway and while my wife and parents went inside, I went to use a pay phone to inform my sister that we had arrived safely and placed the rental car keys on top of the phone without thinking. When I got off the phone, I couldn’t find the keys! I had no idea where they had gone and I had one of those sleep deprived moments when you’re convinced you’re going insane, as how could I lose the keys while on the phone? I went into my wife and parents to break the bad news that we were stranded at a truck stop half-way to Rome. Somehow with my 10 words of Italian and much gesturing, we explained to the owner that I had lost the keys while on the pay phone. This had likely happened before, because he immediately called the phone company. An hour or more later, the phone company guy arrived and after much more cave man gesturing, he began disassembling the phone off it’s stand. There, behind the phone, we found my set of keys and about 10 others, which confirmed that I wasn’t a complete idiot in isolation, at least 10 other idiots had done the same thing!
When we got to Rome, my problematic lack of any European planning skills was soon uncovered. We had rented an inexpensive apartment in the Gianocolo neighborhood and all I had was an address. When I had booked the apartment, it didn’t occur to me to get directions, after all, how big could Rome be? Turns out Rome is plenty big. After buying a map of Rome, we spent hours driving around streets that seemed to be hanging from cliffs. Every street shown on the map leading to the street we were looking for seemed to be a dead end or lead to several flights of stairs, where my dad couldn’t go in his wheelchair. It’s a testament to the kind nature of Italians that the poor gentleman who had rented us the apartment was still there waiting with the keys on the dark unlit street, hours after we had told him we would arrive.
Despite the trauma of getting there, the neighborhood turned out to be magical. We had some great restaurants within walking distance and my wife and I got to know my parents in a way that had been previously hidden to us. We would awake in the morning and hit the street market for the daily provisions. At night, we would either dine outside in a street cafe or I would go to fetch the world’s best pizza. I mastered the Italian phrase for take-out (which is a strange concept to the Italians who take hours for each meal), which is “da portar via”.
It’s amazing to me now that we actually left the U.S. without any confirmation that we would ever see the Pope, just a hope that it would happen. I do remember finally getting to St. Peters square for the first time and feeling a sense of significant accomplishment, like “Wow, I can’t believe this crazy thing worked and we’re actually here.” This was one of those “Bellini-esque” moments where the camera pans all around us, with the birds in the square and all of this under the watchful eye of the saints atop the colonnade. Cue music. We went inside St. Peter’s, which itself is a quasi-religious experience, just based on the majesty of the huge space, with side light filtering through the upper windows creating shafts of light like beams sent from heaven.
Inside the great basilica, it wasn’t long before we overheard other tourists buzzing about the cancelled audience with the Pope. Being the great European travel planner that I was, it never occurred to me to check Pope John-Paul’s schedule. The tourists promptly informed us that he was in Latin America and would be returning so late that he cancelled his usual audience with the masses in St. Peter’s square. This was devastating news as I had dragged my poor father here on an optimistic lark that we would see John-Paul.
As fate would have it, the stormy ocean of Roman emotions we were navigating that week would finally cut us a break. I will never forget the moment that we learned that he would hold the audience despite his travel fatigue (John-Paul was getting very old by that time). We were walking in the Vatican when we heard the news and bells were ringing all over Rome, almost like our own mini-miracle. The whole trip would now not be in vain. While we now knew that there would be an audience, what we didn’t know was whether we had tickets. Now we had to find the office my mother had been “fax bombing” this past few months.
Based on a walking map that seemed to be more accurate when providing detail around the major sites than the side streets, we spent a few hours searching the warren of Roman alleys for the “Bishop’s Office for US Visitors to the Vatican”. This felt like we were all mice in an incomprehensible maze who couldn’t seem to find the cheese, as it always seemed to be around the next corner but mysteriously never was. When we finally found the tiny office, it had a flight of steps my dad couldn’t climb, so my wife and my mother went in while I stayed on the street.
As I later heard from my wife, the place had a counter like a clerk’s office. As soon as they said the name Centeno, the priest at the desk rolled his eyes and got his boss. The poor priests literally had hundreds of faxes in their possession from my mother. The first thing he said, in his heavy Italian accent was, “Mrs. Chenteeno, no more faxes!” They then proceeded to bring out a stack of faxes a few inches thick as proof of their misery. I guess they figured this persistent old woman really needed to see the Pope, so unlike the other 10,000 people sprawled out inside St. Peter’s square, they gave us tickets for a personal audience. In other words, my mother’s intensity had paid off in spades.
Later that week, the 3 hours spent waiting to see the Pope would prove to be some of the most stressful of my life. This was not because I was nervous, but because of my mother and an autistic kid from Paris. On my right was my mother, who growing up a devout Catholic herself, found every possible way to channel her nervousness into meaningless shrill banter like, “Don’t use that video camera, you will wear down the batteries!” or “I think I need to go back to the Apartment to change…” or “Why did you wear those pants?” The guy to my left had severe autism, so literally every 2 minutes for 3 hours, like on cue from God Himself, asked “Are we going to see the Pope?’ The first few times it was cute, after the 50th time it was unnerving, once we approached 100 I was toast.
When the time came to get in line to meet John-Paul, I was the only young man in line. There were maybe 100 mostly elderly people, many in wheelchairs. What I didn’t know then was that since John-Paul had had an assassination attempt a few years earlier, the security around him was at an all-time high. So it comes as no surprise to me now that as I got within 10 feet of the Pontiff, a man in tux and tails grabbed my elbows with a “Kung-Fu death grip” like I had never before or since experienced. This man clearly was some sort of martial arts expert, as I felt like a marionette, as he controlled my every move. I had my few seconds with the Pope and then stiffly made the sign of the cross as the man genuflected my body for me, and then ejected me well out of this 10 foot radius. I was a bit stunned and unsure of what just happened, but at least my parents got their time with the Holy Father sans Kung-Fu grip.
In the end, despite all the hardships and perhaps because we overcame all of them, this trip was one of the most special weeks of my life. Between my mother’s misunderstanding of how faxes work and my lack of planning, we had accomplished with some grace, what just months before everyone told us was impossible. It was one of those trips where the challenges served to make the great moments even sweeter. More to the point, despite religion, it has always made the Vatican a very special place for me.
So now you understand why I am humbled to be going back to the Vatican this April to present on stem cells. This time we will send no faxes and stay away from rental cars and pay phones…
[Picture of John-Paul and I from my office below, Kung-Fu death grip included (note the guy behind me and those darn hands of steel on my elbows). How did I get this photo? That’s another long story involving my mother…]