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VATICAN LETTER Feb-12-99 (900 words) Backgrounder.

Imposters, gaffes, asides: A papal gentleman's view of history

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When Pope John Paul II was elected in 1978, Massimo Sansolini lost his job.

At least, he lost the favorite part of his job: carrying the pope on an elevated chair.

One of the famed Vatican "sediari," or chair-
bearers, Sansolini and others were stunned when the Polish pope walked into St. Peter's Basilica for the first time. As the crowd called out for the pontiff to be held aloft, the pope shouted back: "Not in the chair!"

Thus ended a centuries-old tradition. Though chagrined, Sansolini and his confreres have continued to perform a privileged service in the pope's own household, however. Now called "papal gentlemen" or ushers, they welcome honored guests, keep a close eye on crowds and generally buzz about the pope like a watchful court.

After 33 years of service, Sansolini has shared some of his inside knowledge in a recently published book. His narrative is respectful yet colorful and reveals a world rarely glimpsed, even by Vatican officials.

Papal ushers don't exactly deal with security at papal appearances, but they often end up protecting ceremonial dignity from a certain fringe element.

Over the years, Sansolini has seen it all: A group that hurled anti-papal leaflets at Pope Paul VI; a girl who tossed books at the same pope; and an elderly man who threw rocks. The pontiff, raised on his chair, was an easier target then.

Papal general audiences are basically open to everyone, and the ushers are always on guard against what they call "imposters," people who dress up in ecclesiastical garb so they can be closer to the pope -
- and maybe even kiss his ring and have their pictures taken.

Sansolini, a former fashion designer and an expert in the details of church attire, believes he can spot a ringer a mile away, just by looking at their clothing. He recounts bouncing false nuns, priests and even bishops from the front row of the audience hall, and laughingly wonders how one fake bishop thought his white socks -- a dead giveaway -- would go unnoticed.

When it comes to appearance, this papal gentleman is unforgiving. When Raisa Gorbachev showed up to see the pope wearing red instead of the traditional black, and no veil, it provoked an uproar among the ushers. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter "smiled too much, made too much noise and moved his arms like windmills." Barbara Bush wore a dress that looked two sizes too big.

Polish Premier Lech Walesa and his wife walked hand-in-hand down the Vatican corridor on their way to see the pope, "like a couple on their honeymoon." Former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing had high marks until he crossed his legs during the pope's speech. What a gaffe!

Even Pope John Paul is not spared Sansolini's critical eye. The pope's white shirts, it seems, are slightly wrinkled, especially the double-cuff, which as anyone knows should be ironed after the buttonholes are lined up.

Distinguished visitors are sometimes baffled by the array of Vatican uniforms, and their reactions can betray their bewilderment. One of Sansolini's favorite stories is how an unnamed U.S. president, flush from a meeting with the pope, greeted a long line of Vatican dignitaries and then, with a flourish, gave a military salute -- to the elevator operator.

One of the nice parts of the usher's job is seeing Pope John Paul close-up. Sansolini still marvels at the attention the pope gives to sick people, and he has watched the pontiff work emotional wonders by spending extra time with disabled children.

Pope John Paul reacts to what people tell him during audiences. Once, a priest whispered something that made the pope's face go taut. Sansolini watched as the pope moved ahead, then retraced his steps to give what looked like a finger-wagging tongue-lashing to the young priest.

The bygone days of carrying the pope's chair put the "sediari" within earshot of papal asides. The chair was borne aloft on a platform attached to two long poles; a long version was manned by 12 men, a shorter one by eight. Once when Pope John XXIII watched the team do an emergency repair job on the chair in St. Peter's Basilica, he remarked: "Just remember, when I was a cardinal I had insurance -- now I don't!"

Pope Paul VI once pinched his hand in the wooden apparatus and, holding up his bloody finger, called it a "war wound." On another occasion, he entered the basilica early and found his chair semi-abandoned on the ground -- the "sediari" had gone off for coffee.

The current pope's predecessor, Pope John Paul I, didn't like being carried around, but quickly gave in when he was told that people were standing on chairs to see him during audiences and injuring themselves. Pope John Paul II wasn't convinced by those arguments: The chair was out. He wanted more personal contact with the people, and Sansolini agrees that this was impossible when the pope was above everyone's head.

But today the pope moves with increasing difficulty and rarely wades into the crowd anymore, and some at the Vatican have suggested that the papal chair be brought back. That might please those at the back of the massive crowds expected for the year 2000 jubilee. It would also gladden the hearts of the men who used to carry the pope's chair on their shoulders. END

Copyright (c) 2009 Catholic News Service/USCCB. All rights reserved.
This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or otherwise distributed.
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