The Pope is Coming!
Who knew this little community of 1,500 was even on the Pope’s radar? My English student Eva, a nevelo (the Hungarian word for a person who cares for children) at the Franciscan House, told me it’s traditional to have the Pope come and bless the orphanage home for the new year.
We were trying to coordinate the next day’s English lesson, “The Pope comes tomorrow, so maybe we don’t meet.” She said it so matter-of-factly, as if it was no big deal. Perhaps because she’s been caring for the children for ten years and has seen the Pope every year? Still, I’d think a papal visit would be something to revere.
“The Pope?! Here?” I repeated, eyes wide and stunned at the thought.
“Yes, the Pope, here. He’ll come to bless the house, maybe in the morning. You will see.”
Why hadn’t my CNN feed picked up the news? What were the chances that I’d be at the same orphanage where the Pope was coming to bless the children’s home?
I didn’t want to take too much time away from our English lesson, but I was so curious about the Pope’s visit. My mental list was formulating, make sure my phone battery is charged fully, ask if it’s okay to take pictures, what’s the proper way to greet the Pope, what the hell am I going to wear?
Pete had been pressing fresh coffee grounds in the kitchen area of the co-working space. I don’t know how he contained his laughter. He’d been listening to our conversation and muttered with reluctance, “Priest. Eva. Priest.”
Eva let out a laugh that rocked her head back and watered her eyes. I joined her. Pete joined her.
During the remaining time of our conversational English lesson, Eva’s mouth occasionally curled up at the edges, she shook her head, rolled her eyes and laughed, the Pope!
The next morning I stepped into the dining room and noticed the tables were set to the side of the room and draped with white cotton cloths. A candle was on the table and a Christmas wreath on a side table was adorned with 3 white candles. Some of the nevelo and children sitting in the rustic wooden chairs lining the room held candles as well.
I stood by the door, not sure what was happening. They began singing songs together. Some songs came to completion and others trailed off in muted laughter.
After they’d finished 3 songs the room was quiet except for a few coughs and sniffles. Eva and I made eye contact; she smiled and laughed again, the Pope.
By then most people had heard the story and soft chuckles spread throughout the room.
Moments after, a man in a white robe with red stitching followed by 2 boys wearing white robes swung open the dining room door right where I was standing; in a t-shirt and fleece!
If I’d known that was the moment the priest was coming, I would have dressed up a bit instead of sloppily wearing my gotta’ get some tea and bread clothes.
Two men without smiles wearing dark suit jackets followed the priest into the room. One had his arms folded across a well-worn black leather carry-case.
To my surprise the priest was quite young and very friendly. He made the children laugh, he smiled at them – they didn’t seem the slightest bit nervous like I was.
After one little girl softly sung a few choruses, the priest stood and everyone in the room stood with him. He started walking to his right holding up a kiwi-sized silver ornament of Jesus on the cross. As he held up the pendant, people kissed the cross.
Oh God. What do I do?
I was raised Jewish – I’ve never kissed a cross! But it would be rude not to, wouldn’t it? Maybe he’ll skip passed me. Maybe he knows I’m not a Magyar (native Hungarian). Okay, okay . . . here he comes, oh Jesus. Really, Jesus on the cross is slowly coming within inches of my face!
What do you do when a priest offers Jesus on the cross up to your face? You kiss it. At least I did. I thought it would have been disrespectful not to. And since I don’t practice any religion, I didn’t feel that I was going against any indoctrinated beliefs.
Isn’t that what Jesus would have done? Wasn’t Jesus known for loving all of our fellow humans; asking us to see ourselves in each eye of the people we meet? I wasn’t giving anything up by kissing the cross. It was a way for me to honor the sacred ritual I felt fortunate to witness.
The priest came around the room again from his right to left passing out a holy card. I tried to hide my t-shirt by pulling the sides of my fleece closer together in the middle. He offered me a holy card, smiled and shook my hand. I said a quick prayer he wouldn’t address me in Hungarian, as I’d have no response.
The nevelo brought out a small tray with demitasse cups, hot tea and a basket of fruit and nut bread. Once a few slices of bread were washed down, the priest stood and those who were sitting in the room stood as well.
He circled again from his right toward the left motioning the sign of the cross.
I know it’s top and then down, but is it left to right or right to left?
I decided to look away and avoid the situation altogether. If I was going to be outed as an imposter, so be it. In fact, I was told that some people in this community, this very house, have prejudice against Jews, Muslims and people of African descent.
This judgment crosses socio-economic brackets; education levels and includes bias from both the Romanian and Hungarian citizens in this heavily Hungarian populated region. This region used to be part of Hungary but war took a toll on Hungary’s territory. It lost nearly two-thirds of its land to neighboring states.
To think I’d be judged or viewed negatively because of my Jewish heritage is unsettling. Being Jewish is a nationality, not just a religious choice. I don’t mind being judged. But let it be based on my character, my actions and my values.
Pete has suggested an open dialogue with some of the kids in the house who’ve been known to use ethnic slurs. It’s ironic to think a religion I don’t even partake in is something that will be brought to the table as a lesson in racism. And I welcome the opportunity to show up.
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