Toddlers and (Papal) Tiaras

Pope and baby 2We had lived in Rome all of 3 weeks when Pope Benedict announced his intention to abdicate the papacy, setting in motion a frenzy of events and news coverage the likes of which the world hadn’t seen in 6 centuries. Naturally, my two darling children took it all in stride, one going so far as to volunteer to be kissed in front of an audience of about a billion by the outgoing Holy Father. Yeah, we’re living the high life…but we’re also rolling dirty, toddler style.

Elder brother has turned into the world’s most obstinate two-year old and insists on it being ‘my turn, my turn’ for everything from, oh, I don’t know, washing his hands to putting on his own diaper, and will publicly shame me for attempting to help him call an elevator or hail a taxi. My bad, Joey. You’re right, you’ve got this fare.

The blessed, smooched younger baby has slept through the night exactly 5 times since our arrival in Rome sweet home, and he frequently screams so loudly and for so long that I start to imagine the passing sirens on the busy street below are going to stop in front of our building and send up a team to investigate. So far we’ve had only one uncomfortable encounter with one elderly neighbor, but God bless the language barrier because all I had to do was back slowly away from her while she machine-gunned rapid Italian, punctuated by ‘wah, wah, wah’s!’ and wildly gesticulating hands while the elevator doors closed in my face.

The funny thing about being in an historical moment is that life doesn’t stop – or at least behave appropriately – in order to allow for sufficient appreciation of said historical moment. Case in point: I changed a pair of dirty diapers on some flattened cardboard boxes under the cover of Bernini’s Colonnade after Pope Emeritus Benedict’s final General Audience. And an Asian couple took pictures of it. Is that history?

Well yes, it is. It’s both beautiful and incredibly ordinary and, quite frankly, a little bit gross at times. It’s like that being so close to the process of electing the next pope, too. Reading the circulating news reports and speculation and hearing insider gossip and seeing swishing black robes with flashes of crimson weaving through crowds of foot traffic on the streets … it’s fascinating, but it’s mundane, too. And there are some parts of it I would rather not be privy to.

I’ve been struck again and again by the reality of the Church’s humanity during this time; her utter incompetence and yes, even ugliness, without the grace of God. It’s the same for any one of us on a micro level, and what is the Catholic Church if not a macrocosm of humanity the macrocosm of humanity. Remove the Holy Spirit from the equation and it’s just a bunch of pomp and circumstance from the Middle Ages, promulgated and perpetuated by an enduring institution whose influence is dwindling in the face of raging secularism. Remove the Holy Spirit from parenting and it’s just an endless string of days and (ugly) nights punctuated by glasses of wine, dirty diapers, and endless loads of laundry in the service of fallen creatures that will eventually grow up, grow old, and die. Pretty grim, without an eternal perspective.

Tonight we are feeling bravely stupid enough to bring both boys – ages 10 and 29 months, for the record – to St. Peter’s Basilica for the Universal Call to Prayer. The College of Cardinals voted yesterday to scrap an afternoon session of pre-conclave meetings (called the ‘general congregation’) in favor of a period of Adoration followed by Vespers over the tomb of St. Peter, that wonderfully human rock upon which our Church’s foundation rests. That inconstant and hot-tempered fisherman who denied Christ repeatedly, questioned his judgment frequently, and was so in love with Truth that he gave his life for love of Him in the end. I know this because we walked through an achingly beautiful exhibit in Castel Sant’angelo yesterday called the Camino di San Pietro, and I feel like I know St. Peter personally now. And because my 2 year old tried to touch a fresco from the 16th century and gave the museum guard a heart attack and the occasion to exercise public chastisement on his negligent mother.

I am sure tonight will be beautiful, and it will be hard. It will be hard to wrangle two kids and keep them in some semblance of reverence while the liturgy unfolds, and it will be difficult to believe that this group of more than 100 men, all flawed and human like the rest of this, can come together in the coming days and weeks to elevate one of their own to the Chair of Peter. Our next Holy Father is among them, and if that isn’t as scandalous a claim as to have changed a diaper on the floor of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John Lateran, then I don’t know what is.

St. Peter, rock, foundation of the Church, pray for us.

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Jenny Uebbing is a freelance editor and writer for Catholic News Agency. She lives in Denver, Colorado with her husband Dave and their growing army of toddlers. She writes about marriage, life issues, politics, sociological trends, and traveling with kids here.

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