I’m just back from a few days in Rome with 39 pupils from St Columba’s High School in Gourock, where I’m currently chaplain. Anyone who’s been involved in school trips will be familiar with the acute sleep deprivation, the tearful, attention-seeking outbursts and the occasional brush with the authorities (and that’s just the adults).
Thankfully, our visit passed off without any major incidents and the kids seemed to enjoy the experience. It’s sometimes hard to tell what 14-year-olds are thinking, but there were smiles and several thumbs up as we returned them to their parents.
I was roughly the same age when I first saw the Eternal City. Unlike these kids, however, I already had a couple of years of classical studies and Latin behind me, so coming to Rome was as much a pilgrimage to the city of Caesar and Cicero as it was to see the Vatican in the Extraordinary Jubilee of 1983.
The very next year I managed to persuade my Mum to let me leave the sunbeds of Rimini for an unaccompanied overnight stay in Rome, where I would turn 16. What may have looked like irresponsible parenting was actually a recognition that I was more likely to be tucked up in bed with HV Morton’s A Traveller in Rome than knocking back grappa in some dingy bar.
Our pupils, although bright enough for sure, for the most part don’t share my enthusiasm for classical antiquity or Church history. Our tour guide at the Colosseum was met with blank looks when she presumed they would all have seen the movie Gladiator. I pointed out that the film came out two years before they were born so that’s already ancient history to them.
What these guides need is for Disney or Pixar to produce an animated version of the legend of Romulus and Remus or for Marvel to come up with a new league of superheroes based on Roman demigods.
One thing the kids did struggle with was their accommodation: obviously they have never stayed in a two-star hotel before (lucky them). They hyperventilated over the lack of Wi-Fi (since broadband is the new oxygen). They also mistook the ultra-thin towels for bedlinen and were reduced to floods of tears as multiple and simultaneous use of hair-drying and straightening devices resulted in a power outage in the entire district surrounding Stazione Termini. One or two took me at face value when I told them that the “sheets” on their bed (in reality those towels) were the togas they had to wear on the Forum tour the following day.
We had excellent seats at the papal audience on the Wednesday morning. Although we had tickets, I actually took the group to the other side of the enclosure in St Peter’s Square: that way, they would see the Holy Father up close as he made his initial circuit of the Piazza and we could then make a discreet exit if the succession of speeches and translations got a bit much for them. Unfortunately – or fortunately, I should say – a Swiss Guard summoned me over and gave me the good news that he was sending us up to the best seats, the Reparto Speciale right beside the Holy Father.
I have to say this act of kindness on the part of the officer made my heart sink a little: our view of the Pope’s back would be excellent and we would have to stay until the very end of the Holy Father’s meet-and-greet with those at the front of the VIP area. As I had anticipated, the heat did begin to take its toll and the finer points of the recent papal trip to Cairo were lost on our kids, several of whom surrendered to the embrace of Morpheus.
A first visit to St Peter’s Basilica is always a special moment and there is nothing quite like that sharp intake of breath as you enter and your eyes are inexorably drawn to the beam of sunlight which seems to fall on the tomb of St Peter regardless of the weather. Safe to say, our students were seized with the same sense of wonder and there were plenty of “wows” as the sheer scale of the church began to dawn on them.
I did chuckle when one of the girls asked: “Father, where does the Pope actually sleep?” She was scanning this vast expanse of bronze and marble as if expecting to find a baroque bunk bed tucked away in a corner.
That went in my memorable quotes file from our Rome trip, along with “I don’t really like Italian pizza” and the surprised exclamation, on seeing a comely cleric calendar on sale: “I didn’t know you got good-looking priests!” Gee, thanks.
One advantage of the broadband blackout and woeful internet coverage was that I remained spoiler-free for the final episode of BBC’s Line of Duty, which I had to miss. One of its stars, Martin Compston, is a former pupil of St Columba’s and his parents still live in my parish. Thankfully, I am now up to date, back at my desk and have three funerals awaiting me this week. My “line of duty” has taken me from home to Rome and back again. I’m still exhausted and less likely than ever to get my face in “that” calendar but, as the Holy Father is wont to say, “Avanti!” Onwards and upwards!
Fr John Bollan is parish priest of St Joseph’s in Greenock and an Honorary Teaching Fellow at the University of Glasgow