We have some time before the evening event begins, so a few of us enter a tiny and much older church located near the Cathedral itself. It is crowded inside, where groups of people mingle near priests who appear to be taking confessions. It is an intimate space and I am an interloper.
Back outside, we gather together again and head into St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral.
Although I want to gawk at the building, we are quickly herded to the front of the church, where, as directed, I slide into a pew. There is frantic activity all around us, although this vast space is so serene it ALMOST absorbs it. I have no idea what is going on. Cameramen are setting up equipment at the front of the church. Nearby, men scurry around us, dragging wires and cables from place to place. They are all intent on their task, but the sense of excitement is palpable. What is all this about?
What I know: We are here to see (and maybe to meet) the Coptic Pope. How that will unfold is a complete mystery to me.
Probably because it seems self-evident, Romani has not done a particularly good job of explaining that we will be guests at Pope Shenouda III‘s regular Wednesday evening lecture.
Apparently this is a very big deal in Coptic Cairo.
While I wait, watch, and try to guess what will unfold tonight (a worship service? a speech?), technicians are hastily installing plastic strips along the back of the pews where we sit. The tubes must have wiring of inside, because soon we are give headphones to plug into it. When I put a set on, I hear what sounds like a mostly unsuccessful sound test – “Can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” amid dead stillness and loud crackling. Meanwhile, they are still installing strips and pulling out and testing headphones for others in our group. They seem to have gotten a late start on this task. Still, I get the feeling that we are viewed as sort of important guests.
Of course, the frantic activity immediately around me mirrors what is going on in front of us. The huge platform in front of the alter area has ranks of chairs set to either side. One side is rapidly filling with what appear to be priests, monks, and other church hierarchy. The other is filling with more ordinary-looking men and women and even a few children. (Generally Coptic men and women don’t sit together, which makes this all the more intriguing. Who are these people? Lay leaders? Major patrons? I have no clue.) Between the two groups stands a large screen, something that looks like a Bishop’s seat, and a phalanx of cameras, sound equipment, lights, and technicians. It seems informal and rather chaotic.
However, as odd as it sounds, this chaos makes it more comfortable to be here – no one else seems really prepared for whatever is soon to come either.
In the midst of all this – before all the headphones are working or the cameras in place, music begins to swell from somewhere within the church.
Although it doesn’t look as if anything has changed, things must be getting underway.
At last the crowd stirs and then rises. The Pope has entered the room.
Crowds of priests, monks, and others greet the Pope and receive his blessing. The first come in a mob, and then orderly lines form, and then a trickle of individuals. The Pope waits at the front of the church amid the screens and sound equipment and cameras, the lights of the TV cameras trained on him.
Suddenly we are told it is our turn – quickly, we must go up and receive a blessing from the Pope.
As I move to the front of the church, I am nervous, excited, and something else harder to define. Perhaps it is a little bit of panic: What is the protocol for being blessed by a Pope? Who am I to be blessed by a Pope anyway? Do I even belong here? What if I screw up in front of all these people?!?
As I stand in front, waiting my turn, I think this is simultaneously one of the most amazing and bizarre situations I’ve found myself in. I offer a silent prayer, await further guidance, and breath a sigh of relief that Jess, the young teen in our group, has been given the honor of going first (pushed to the front of the line – surely the Pope would forgive her for a protocol mistake).
Everything around us seems hurried and confused. We are told to wait, to move, to stop here, to step there, and then to wait again. We are also told that we will shake hands with the Pope, but I don’t believe that. You don’t shake hands with a Pope! Varying information – sometimes contradictory – is hissed at us even as we are moving toward the Pope. I’ll just do whatever Jess and her parents do.
Suddenly I am standing before the Pope. The lights are hot and blinding. . . I don’t have a clue what those ahead of me did. . . . The Pope is seated, so I stoop slightly as he reaches up and, with a cross held in his hand, marks a sign of the cross on my forehead with a firmly-placed finger while pronouncing a blessing. For a moment nothing else exists in the world. I look up directly at him, bow slightly, and whisper “thank you, Father.”
As I step away the chaotic world comes rushing back at me.
Back in my seat, I watch others in our group receive their blessing.
Is this real? Was that really me just a moment ago?
I know it was because I can still feel the shape of the cross on my forehead. I wonder if that mark will prove indelible.