There are keepers in the heart of the Church that you might not have expected.
Picture this: tomb of Blessed John Paul II, St Peter’s Basilica, early morning mass.
The conditions were perfect – my priest friend was celebrating and had a smashing homily up his sleeve, the sun was gently streaming in, cascading golden shafts over the great marbled pillars, it was 7.30 in the morning, so flocks of tourists hadn’t yet flooded in; all was quiet and peaceful…
Then I came up to receive the Blessed Sacrament right in front of the tomb itself; so far, so good. I sat down to say my prayers in quiet post-communion contemplation, when SMACK!
All of a sudden a little old Italian lady shoots to her feet, her four feet and half a dozen inches standing tall – well, at least standing – with fiery indignation. Like all little old Italian ladies in the early autumn heat, she was wrapped in umpteen layers of clothing (apparently 86 degrees is just not warm enough), her face was weathered with many a pleasant Italian summer, but graceful in its indignant composure; the fashionable hat that looked like it came straight off the back of a seal pup topped the pint-sized vision off to a tee.
In true Roman style she bellows “AO’!!!” (‘Oi’ in English), hands gesticulating wildly. The object of her prey was a hapless young man who had received the Eucharist in his hands and made the terrible mistake of continuing down the aisle without having put the host in his mouth.
“Ma mettilo in bocca!” (put Him in your mouth!) she cries at altavoce, her fiery big-mamma gaze fixed on the young man’s bewildered face. The poor chap quickly puts the Eucharist in his mouth and sits down, face glowing and feeling, I would have guessed, rather unjustly brutalized.
The old lady, satisfied with her mission accomplished, gives a small grunt of righteous acceptance and sits back down to her prayer, contented.
In all likelihood the young man probably had every intention of receiving the Eucharist that very second. Indeed, standing up and shouting as another is taking the Eucharist is not what most people would agree on as appropriate mass-time behaviour – but what I noticed was that this little old Italian lady, perhaps in want of a little finesse, was undertaking a sacred mission all of her own…
She was protecting her beloved Christ, in a Basilica where thousands of tourists pass through each day, in the beating heart of the church, on the very rock where it began. She sat down during mass and kept her eye on each person taking Jesus in the body, making sure that they received Him as they should.
In a way, she reminded me of the little saint Tarcisius, a young boy from the 3rd century who was charged with taking the Eucharist to condemned Christians in prison, when a violent group set him upon. Rather than give up his Christ to a terrible fate, he kept his hands firmly cupped around the Eucharist, offered himself up to that fate instead, and was beaten to death.
Such love, such reverence for Him. The thought of Jesus being taken away and used for whatever wicked end led each one of them to act as they did, the little saint to give up his life, the little old Italian lady to get on her feet and bellow out during mass…
St Peter’s may have its Swiss guards, but Christ in St Peter’s has little old Italian ladies. And they do the job swimmingly; if not a little noisily.