VATICAN CITY – When Pope John Paul II is away, the Vatican's tight security and rules of decorum relax a bit.
So while Vatican gendarmes looked in the purses and backpacks of about 500 people who wandered through the Vatican gardens July 29, they did not bother using their metal-detector wands, nor did they examine the bags very closely.
Of course, members of the crowd gathered that night would not fit anyone's security-alert profile: Everyone was armed with a rosary, and more than half of the participants wore traditional religious habits.
The candlelight procession through the gardens was organized by Msgr. Raffaello Lavagna, a semire-tired Vatican Radio personality who began the annual event in 1995 on the feast of St. Martha to honor women religious who are “modern-day Marthas” - cleaning, cooking and running the households of priests.
After the hour-long walk up to the peak of the Vatican hill and back down again, the 84-year-old priest said the Vatican parish of St. Anne has agreed to take over the procession next year.
Normally members of the public are allowed into the gardens only as participants in the paid, limited-sized tours offered by the Vatican Museums each morning.
But, Msgr. Lavagna said, it was fairly easy to get permission for his annual procession: “The Holy Father is always away July 29, either in the mountains or at Castel Gandolfo,” the summer residence south of Rome.
The fact that Pope John Paul was on his trip to Canada, Guatemala and Mexico this year simply gave Msgr. Lavagna added material for his introductory remarks before each image of Mary where the mysteries of the rosary were recited.
Because a brief but intense downpour – complete with lightning and thunder – delayed the start of the rosary, the mosaic of Our Lady, Help of the Roman People in front of the Tower of St. John got short shrift.
In a relaxed and familiar tone not usually associated with Vatican prayer services, the monsignor urged the crowd to grab a candle from volunteer ushers and hurry up the hill to the helicopter pad.
He carried a microphone connected to four loudspeakers; the amplifier and a tape recorder for the evening's musical accompaniment were mounted on a pushcart, not unlike those used by modern Roman “organ-grinders” who stroll the city center in search of tourists' coins.
“Testing, testing,” he said as the rosary reciters gathered in front of the torch-lit statue of Our Lady of Czestochowa at the heliport.
Poland's Black Madonna, he explained, is an image dear to the heart of the traveling Pope and “she always says hello and goodbye to him” from the heliport.
Winding on paved and gravel paths through manicured lawns, under towering umbrella pines and past ancient, gnarled olive trees, the crowd moved on to an even more relevant work of art in the garden: a white marble statue of Juan Diego holding his cloak with a brightly colored image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Pope John Paul declared Juan Diego a saint just two days later in Mexico City.
The next mystery was recited in front of a modern bronze statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a statue Msgr. Lavagna later said he doesn't particularly care for; figures at the foot of the statue representing the three shepherd children who saw Mary at Fatima just look like unworked lumps of bronze to the priest.
With the far-off hum of Roman traffic in the background as the sun finished setting, the prayers and singing of the crowd were continually punctuated by another, more insidious modern noise: the ringing of cellular phones some participants had forgotten to turn off.
The bearers of the offending phones were scowled at, and not only by the nuns.
The next stop was the little square in front of the vine-covered Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, a replica of the Marian grotto in France.
Still behind schedule, the rushing Msgr. Lavagna was finished with the last decade of the rosary before most people got near the designated spot, so instead they filed into the gravel-covered space where a children's choir from Savona and a small orchestra were preparing the evening's finale.
Unfortunately, despite the rush, the crowd missed its scheduled connection via Vatican Radio with the Carmelite Sisters in the Vatican's Mater Ecclesiae cloister; but, fortunately, the monsignor had a tape of other nuns singing the Marian hymn, “Salve Regina,” and everyone joined in.
The finale was sung before the monsignor's favorite Marian image in the garden: a larger-than-life-sized ceramic bas relief of Our Lady of Mercy.
“Look at her beautiful smile,” he said. “There are too many Madonnas who are sad or weeping.”