Witnessing the installment of Pope John Paul I
By Clare Westcott
Monday, December 11, 2006
Reading an interpretation of Nostradamus` prophecy recently by a leading author on the old 16th century scholar, I read where it was predicted that the Pope elected to succeed John Paul II would be assassinated sparking an invasion of the Western World.
The unlikely prophecy reminded me of my visit to Rome in 1978 for the crowning of John Paul l who died suddenly only a few weeks after becoming the 264th Pope.
I think of my visit as The Roman conquest of`78, or it could be called, The Pope, The Prime Minister and Protestant Panache. It goes something like this............
The intercom buzzed. It was Miss Anderson. “The Premier wants to see you, Clare, and he said, `Wear a tie. `” In the 1970s and 1980s, I seldom wore a tie in my office, but one always hung behind the door, easy to reach on my way out. By the time I made the 90-odd feet to the corner office my tie was on, held firm and straight as I buttoned down my collar.
“I thought you should wear a tie,” Mr. Davis said,” as he put a match to his pipe. I was a bit puzzled for we were alone and the tie was never required when just the two of us met in his office. He stood up and continued, “You are going to have to observe a bit more formality, Clare.” And just as I thought I was about to be reprimanded for my casual dress, I heard the Premier say, “If you go to Rome next month.” It was typical Davis, the dialogue was a bit of the theatre he enjoyed – toying with the help. Those words would launch a string of events that rivaled the Keystone Cops.
Cardinal Luciani of Venice had been chosen to succeed Pope Paul VI and the outdoor ceremony was to be at St. Peters in Rome. The new pontiff would take the name John Paul I. I was picked to attend as part of the Canadian delegation. Ottawa would choose most of the delegates and each provincial government was asked to submit the names of two people to represent them.
Frank Drea, Minister of Correctional Services and I had been picked by Cabinet to represent Ontario. There was no disputing the choice of Frank for he was Catholic. In my case I was never really sure. Maybe it was the sum of all my deeds for I married a Catholic, was the father of nine kids, delivered Bingo tables for the local priest and did volunteer work with the Catholic Fathers from Scarborough Foreign Missions. However, I was a Protestant who celebrated the Battle of The Boyne when I was young, playing the drum in many Orange Lodge parades.
Our protocol office began working on the details; we were to fly to Rome from Ottawa with the other members of the Canadian delegation. The Department of National Defense aircraft would leave two days prior and return two days after the event.
Our first glitch came as Frank was leaving for his yearly visit to the far north. He was not scheduled to return until the day we were to leave for Ottawa. He had not ordered the proper clothes. Protocol dictated that dress went a bit beyond your run-of-the-mill tuxedo. Although it was a solemn religious ceremony it would have all the trappings of a Coronation or a Presidential Inauguration.
Attending would be princes and princesses and other royalty along with prime ministers, presidents and assorted dictators. Not to worry, with the help of Mrs. Drea one of Frank’s Sunday suits found its way to Sid Silver and the correct measurements were taken. After factoring in his height and weight a tailored masterpiece was produced.
The second glitch was a bigger one. A call from Ontario protocol chief Walter Borosa advised there had been some kind of screw-up and Frank and I failed to make the roster. Although the names of others from Ontario were on the manifest, ours was not.
“But don’t worry,” Walter said, “I’ll sort it out and get back to you.” He called later to say the protocol office in Ottawa was told to delete our names from the official delegation. He did not know why. All he knew was the list was final and complete and we were not on it.
There were still four days before we were to leave. It wouldn’t be the end of the world for me as I had seen a lot of Italy over the years. But I didn’t take kindly to being zapped from the list by some Ottawa bureaucrat.
Ivan Head was a friend and one of the Prime Minister’s most trusted aides – so I called him. He felt it was just some minor slip-up and he would sort it out and get back to me. “Anyway Clare,” he said, “I’ll be seeing Mr. Trudeau at Harrington Lake this evening and I’ll speak to him about it and call you.” I had not yet been able to reach Frank to tell we had been bounced, for he was still traveling in the north.
As I came in from lunch the next day my secretary reported that there was a telephone message on my desk from Ivan’s office. It was from his secretary and said simply that Mr. Head had to go to New York unexpectedly and she was to pass his message on to me. It read, “Sorry Clare, there is nothing I can do.” She did tell my secretary that Jim Coutts in Trudeau`s office was responsible for vetting the list and Ivan suggested it was likely he who us scrubbed.
I was a bit apprehensive about telling Frank that Ottawa decided they were going to Rome without us. I had experienced his Irish temper before and knew he could be a rough and tumble street fighter. Few wanted to mess with Frank.
When I finally located him by radiophone I was surprised – for I thought he would be steaming with anger. However, his calm resolve for revenge rather than fighting about it was a wise choice. “We are going to Rome Clare if we have to swim all the way.” he said, adding, “Get us on Alitalia so we arrive before those bastards.” “And call my wife to make sure my driver will have everything at the airport in plenty of time.” Clearly, the Ottawa mandarins had not heard the last of the slighted Honourable Frank Drea.
I had already called Tony Santamaura, boss in the Ontario government office in Milan – an office I had helped set up over a decade earlier. He would arrange hotel reservations and meet us at the airport in Rome. Tony was amused when I told him of our snub by Ottawa and that one way or another we intended to be in St. Peter’s Square for the crowning of John Paul I.
Frank arrived at the airport from the far North, we boarded Alitalia and Tony met us in Rome. We checked into the hotel to lay out our plans for the next two days. A few hours later the Quebec delegation checked in, having arrived with the others off the “official” government plane.
We heard from them that Prime Minister Trudeau was throwing a party at the home of the Canadian Ambassador, which we resolved to crash.
Before leaving Toronto, a colleague in the Premier’s office gave me the name of a close friend who was First Secretary in the Canadian Embassy in Rome. That was all we had. But we parlayed it into a bonanza. I called the embassy and he was very obliging, he obviously didn’t know that we had been dumped from the official party. When he said, “I’ll see you at the Ambassador’s residence tonight,” I crossed my fingers and lied. I said, “The Minister forgot to bring our invitations,” “Don’t worry,” he reassured me, “Come anyway, I’ll leave word at the gate to let you in.”
In the meantime, resourceful Tony Santamaura had rented a black Fiat limo. We had to look important. It was all shined up and reeked of class. We didn’t look at all out of place driving into the Ambassador’s residence. The reception was an outside affair on the spacious grounds. The first familiar thing I spotted was the big Stetson on top of the Minister of Agriculture, Eugene Whelan. Frank was in his glory – as was I. Free drinks and revenge. There were cabinet ministers everywhere and an assortment of Liberal honchos lapping up the fine food and drink. We left early to work out how we could crash tomorrow’s gala.
The new Pope was to be installed outside on the large landing at the top of the white stone steps leading up to St. Peter’s in front of the massive front doors. A throne-type structure was built facing St. Peter’s Square where thousands would be sitting and standing to watch the ceremony. The Cardinals with their high pointed hats were to sit in two long rows on each side of the throne running from the wall of St. Peter’s to the front edge of the landing. V.I.P.`s from most countries in the world were behind the two rows of Cardinals. Prime Minister Trudeau was seated in row 17.
The plan Frank and I came up with was both cunning and devious. It had to be good as security was tight. A bomb had already been thrown at the car carrying the President of Argentina. Our guide, mentor, chauffeur and fellow conspirator, Tony Santamaura had great credentials. In an earlier life he was Executive Assistant in Rome to exiled King Farouk of Egypt and his father had been Chief of Police in Sicily.
We had to come up with a way to get into the cordoned off V.I.P. section in front of St. Peters. At the Ambassadors reception, we discovered that Prime Minister Trudeau was staying at one hotel, while a dozen cabinet ministers were at another a few blocks away.
The drill was for the cars to pick up the delegates and leave with a police motorcycle escort at the front and back, then proceed to the Prime Minister’s hotel. Mr. Trudeau would be in the lead car and the procession would then be escorted at high speed to the private automobile entrance at the left of the large pillars that circle St. Peter’s Square.
Tony had fastened a small Ontario flag on a foot long stick to each fender with duct tape. He bought an impressive looking chauffeur’s hat matching his jet-black suit, and we took off to the Minister’s hotel. We felt like Batman and Robin and probably looked the part.
Tony slowly pulled up behind the last of the half dozen long black Fiats that were lined up. We sat and waited. One bit of comic relief as we waited was watching the fun Gene Whalen was having just outside our window. trying to pin a corsage on the chest of fellow cabinet minister Monique Began. Consensual groping.
Suddenly, with his head down, Frank spoke. “Don’t look now but we’ve made the parade. The Rome police have pulled in behind us on two motorcycles.” A minute later, we left. Trudeau was not yet in his car when the entourage stopped at his hotel. Finally, all smiles, he waved to everybody and we were off to the Vatican.
It was easier than we thought. For ten or twelve minutes we raced through red lights with a police escort in front and behind. It was hard to fight off feeling important. Rows of Caribbineri lining each side saluted as we sped through the holy gates.
It was a short walk to the roped-off enclave reserved for the royal personages, the rich and famous, Prime Ministers and Presidents and a lot of high holy people, as well as movie stars and business moguls. But we had no seats. They all appeared to have a large white ticket that entitled them to a spot in the first twenty rows directly in front of the dais where the formal ceremony would take place,
The truly great sat in rows behind the Cardinals on the landing. A waving sea of the devout and the curious without tickets stood by the tens of thousands in the massive square. Bad planning made it tough for our Prime Minister and the other important folks to see what was taking place – for when the Cardinals donned their tall hats, they blocked the view of the favoured folks sitting on the upper landing.
Frank and I walked around trying to look holy and wise and important. I’m sure we looked more like a couple of lost penguins - but still clinging resolutely to our hope that we would crown our successful gate crashing expedition with V.I.P. seats.
Although our devious scheming put us beyond deserving of a miracle, it happened. All because of a wonderful Newfie I met years earlier.
In an earlier life I met Monsignor William Carew who was then personal assistant to Pope Paul VI. Bill was from Newfoundland and had been at the Canadian College in Rome before joining the staff of the Holy Father. I met him at a gathering of Canadians in Rome. A few days earlier. I had attended the opening of the Ontario Office in Milan. Sam Bronfman had donated two cases of Crown Royal for the Milan reception and we only used one. Rather than lug the unused case back to Canada, I asked Bill to take it off my hands. It sealed a friendship that lasted over 30 years. He rose to become Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop William Aquin. Carew, the Vatican Ambassador to Japan until his retirement in 1997.
Through Bill I had met an American Archbishop with the Vatican Secretariat of State. I spotted him in the crowd and took Frank over to meet him.
Then a Bishop, the American and Bill, in the early 1960`s drove me to the little town of Castle Gondolfo, a few miles south of Rome to visit the observatory where Jesuit astronomers have been mapping the stars since the 1500s. We shook hands and chatted for a few minutes about earlier days. And then it happened. The miracle. Praise the Lord! The Archbishop was lamenting that his sister and her husband were to attend the ceremony but because of the British Airways strike, they were stuck in London. Frank was almost salivating as he saw the two white V.I.P. tickets in his hand. They were for the third row and immediately in front of where it was all to take place.
I looked at Frank and said something like. “Those tickets are better than ours I think, aren’t they, Frank?” Right on cue he answered, “Yes Clare I believe they are.” Of course they were. We were not really fibbing because any tickets were better than ours - we didn’t have any.
And so it was. We started with little more than revenge in mind for being zapped from the list. Scuppered, according to Ivan Head, by Jimmy Coutts. Now we were three rows from the front and the Prime Minister of Canada, although he was above us and up on the landing, was 17 rows back with a view obstructed by the high pointed hats of the Cardinals.
Frank was overjoyed. With little more than his Irish determination, and smoke and mirrors, we had upstaged Pierre Trudeau. But more important, with moist eyes Frank sat praying that his mother was looking down on him with great pride in her Catholic son.
We spent the next morning roaming St. Peters. As we left, I went over to watch the carpenters dismantling the throne-like structure used in the crowning of John Paul I. They had removed the beautiful red and purple material that covered structure and were carefully taking the nails out of the pine boards and dropping them in a can. . After some gentle haggling I bought the nails from one of the men who I’m sure thought I was a nut case. I paid for 5000 lire, or about $7. and brought them home.
A souvenir that celebrated a historic event, a reminder of a conniving Rome adventure, and a precious keepsake of a Pope who was chosen by the Cardinals in one day and sadly died thirty three days later.
Back in Toronto, my friend, and Canada’s eminent welder/sculptor, Gerald Gladstone, agreed to craft me a memorial of our conquest of Rome - from Pope John Paul’s nails.
Clare Westcott served as Commissioner of Metro Police and a Citizenship court judge following a long career at Queens Park.