Given the news of the Pope's retirement, this feels like the perfect time to share this story. You see, I have the
dubious distinction of having been both thrown out of the Vatican, and also blessed
by the Pope. Though not on the same day.

The Vatican
Incident (a good Robert Ludlum title) happened while I was on a semester abroad
with Eastern Michigan University’s European Cultural History Tour – 14
countries in 4 months. We’d just arrived in Rome, and were doing a Vatican day.

Now, I’m a huge
fan of Roman history, especially the latter days of the Republic. Recently,
when naming all the Romans who interested me, a friend said, “You like all the
butchers!” That’s not strictly true, but I am certainly fascinated by several
of the more, shall we say, colorful of the Romans. One of them I have a special
interest in is Lucius Cornelius Sulla. He carved the path that Caesar would
later follow, using his army to take the city of Rome itself and give victory
to his political faction. He was made Dictator, and rewrote Rome’s
constitution – which worked out so well that Caesar had to do it again 25 years

SullaAnyway, I’ve
always wanted to get a glimpse of Sulla. There are two busts in existence. One
I’d seen in Germany. It portrayed him old, toothless, and decrepit, with a
clever (if insulting) detail from the sculptor of showing Sulla’s real hair
sticking out of the curly wig he wore.

But I’d heard
there was another bust. One of him as a young man, of him so impossibly
handsome that the wives of important senators were throwing themselves at him,
and thus earning him the enmity of many great men. That bust was in the
Vatican. That was the bust I wanted to see.

But it was my
first time there, and there was so much else to see. The Loacoon, the Prima
Porta Augustus, and more, and more. I was amused to see how many of the
statues had had their wangs whacked off, and wondered if there was a room
somewhere in the Vatican filled floor to ceiling with tiny stone penises. I imagined
the job of trying to match them up again. I was in my early 20s.

Despite so
much to appreciate, my goal was to see Sulla. So I slipped away from the bulk
of the group and went hunting for the busts. A frustrating search. Not that
there weren’t busts, there were plenty. But not from the right period. Not of

ImagesThe hourglass
was draining, it would soon be closing time, and yet, no Sulla. Then I saw a
sign with the right dates! But it led to a closed room, with a red velvet rope
across the door. Apparently the Vatican closes off some of their collections at
different times of day so as to not have to staff them all. Damn! So close!

I looked around.
No one. Well then… I stepped over the velvet rope and tried the door. It was

(Aside – when my
wife tells this story, she adds guns and dogs and barbed wire. She says she
tells it so much better than I do. And she’s right. But I’m telling it like it

So I slipped in,
and was confounded – I was on a second floor looking down at the busts! This
was a balcony level with a few busts on it. But Sulla wasn’t here – he had to
be down on the main floor. And there was no way down! Who doesn’t build a

I walked around the
balcony, staring down at the busts, trying to discern which was which by the
hairstyles. Then I spotted one that could –
– be him. But I was too far away to tell.

Then I realized
that my cheap camera had a zoom function. Not a very good one, but a zoom
nonetheless. I whipped it out and pointed it at the bust in question. Not good
enough. I needed to get closer. I leaned over the balcony rail.
Still not close enough! So I put one leg

When the guards
found me, I was hanging upside-down off the balcony, my knees wrapped around
the rail. I was hauled up and escorted out of the building.

I got the
photo. It would be awesome to say it was him. But I don't think so. 

Scan 5

Flash forward
six years. Jan and I are on our honeymoon, a three-month tour of Europe (we
didn’t have a wedding. We dress up in front of people for a living, so we
didn’t feel the need. And we spent all the money we would have put into a
wedding into our honeymoon). We’re in Rome, and I’m taking her to St. Peter’s.
She’s never been, and we’re excited. Only it’s more crowded than I’ve ever seen
it. It’s a Wednesday, so I can’t figure out what’s going on. Suddenly we’re
being funneled through metal detectors and we can hear a voice droning in Latin
over a PA system. A very familiar voice…

We see his face
on the giant Popeatron they’ve set up before we actually see him. Pope John
Paul II is holding a Wednesday Mass in St. Peter’s Square. How utterly cool.

We make to sit
down, but someone asks if we are newlyweds. We admit we are, and we’re led to
the front with a bunch of other couples. And during his mass, the Pope blesses
our union.

Kicked out of
the Vatican. Blessed by the Pope. I figure it’s a wash. 

Italy Trip July 2005 105

(This is us on our second trip to St. Peter's – with a camera, this time)