The Pope Next Door

Twice I heard cheering outside, and twice a glance down to the street below told me why: Pope John Paul II was passing by. After dark, the Holy Father's office window stays lit until 11 — I know, because I could see it from my window.

Apart from the tolling of the bells of St. Peter's Basilica, this hotel is quieter than any in Rome, because it isn't in Rome: It's the only hotel in Vatican City.

Residenza Paolo VI (the VI is pronounced “Sesto” in Italian; the name means “Paul VI Residence” ) was converted into a hotel by Dr. Courtial, the gregarious and impressive man who greeted me the morning I arrived for a free stay.

He explained that the Augustinian Fathers who own the property have allowed him to offer rooms to guests.

His goal was to combine a retreat-center atmosphere with a luxury hotel. The combination, as one might expect, doesn't always work. The television set in my room was handy for me while I was “on duty” for the Register and kept up with CNN for the first half of my one-week stay. But when I transitioned to pilgrim for the second half, it became a distraction.

But the great advantages of service and location at the hotel far outweighed any disadvantage.

Breakfast is plentiful and the help exemplary. I missed it the day I went to Mass in St. Peter's Square. Since the hotel is located literally across the street from the arms of the colonnade arms that stretch out from St. Peter's (and across the street from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), there is no need to guess what time is best to show up at the basilica for an event. You need only look out a window to see if the lines have begun forming yet. (Quick tip: Wait until the nuns arrive — and they will, by the dozens — then go wherever they go.)

Another morning, I woke early due to jet lag and wandered down to the square to watch the extraordinary Italian street cleaners do their work (they expertly maneuver oddly shaped machines and brooms). Colorful Swiss guards were arriving and taking their positions, battle-axes in hand. I ran into a priest-friend (I didn't even know he was in Rome) who invited me along to his early morning Mass in St. Peter's.

The location also saves you having to juggle information sources.

One evening I heard loudspeakers and headed to the square. There, a booklet informed me that this was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the proclamation of the dogma of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It afforded me the opportunity to say the rosary with Catholic lay people (and bishops) from around the world and to get a point-scoring memento for my wife (we were married on the feast of the Assumption eight years ago). I can't imagine how I would have found out about that event — or have been able to go — if I hadn't been staying at the Residenza.

This hotel, alas, won't be for everyone. The price would have been prohibitively expensive for a father of four like myself, even if I went alone, if it hadn't been a free promotional visit. But for those who can afford it, it's an experience well worth the price.

— Tom Hoopes Executive Editor