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The mortal pope and eternal Rome

Growing up in Rome, not far from Saint Peter's Basilica (whose dome I could see from my parents' bedroom) I did not think much of my circumstance. I thought it was just normal to drive my scooter by the Vatican walls and to see the Swiss guards seriously guarding the entrance to Vatican City. I also thought it normal to be able to go into Vatican City (as my father was a Vatican employee) to buy cheaper gas and imported goods free of the high Italian taxes. It is only after moving to America that I realized the exceptional luck of my youth.

When a pope dies or — as it happened this time after several centuries — retires, the eyes of the world are upon Rome. The city has lazily witnessed hundreds of pontiffs, and in fact, unknown to many, was not part of Italy but of the State of the Church until 1870. Before then, the pope was not only the world's Catholic spiritual leader but also the ruler of the city. In these times, I think about my hometown, and I realize how many proverbs of Rome are pope-related. The first one that comes to my mind is, "ad ogni morte di papa" (every pope's death) which means something that happens quite infrequently. Another one is "morto un papa, se ne fa' un altro" (once a pope is dead, a new one is made) to indicate that nobody is irreplaceable. And, we say "dove è il papa, lì è Roma" (where the pope is, there is Rome) to indicate that where the important person in your life lives, there is where you are happy to be.

The pontiff's life can be tiring, as the recent retirement shows, but this is not obvious to the Roman people, who say "stare come un papa" (to be like a pope) to indicate a pleasant and relaxing lifestyle, or just having a moment of satisfaction and joy.

There are sayings referred the process of election of a new pope, and to the way that the conclave communicates to the outside world, with black smoke if no agreement is reached, and white smoke when a new pope is elected. So, in Rome, when a decision has to be made by any group of people, we say "fumata bianca" (white smoke), or "fumata nera" (black smoke) depending on whether a consensus was reached or not (and "fumata grigia", grey smoke, if a consensus is close but not final). In any situation when somebody has to be nominated to a position, the candidates are defined as "papabili" (possible pope), even for a more mundane job such as manger of the local soccer team. Finally, to underscore the unpredictability of the outcome of papal elections, we say "chi entra papa in conclave, ne esce cardinale" (he who enters the conclave as pope, comes out of it as cardinal).

Papal lives, deaths, and elections have been witnessed over the centuries by the proverbially skeptical Roman people. We have developed a sort of relaxed attitude toward Vatican events. Romans are aware that the city is eternal, independent from what happens inside the Vatican walls.

This is the time when, at the question if I am ever homesick, I reply that I am "Romesick."

Roberto Salvatori, Baltimore

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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