This past week marked twenty years since Pope John Paul II visited in New Orleans . (He arrived Sept. 11, 1987.) The anniversary brings to mind one of the New Orleanians who knew John Paul best.
Stories have surfaced about Lindy Boggs’ tenure as Ambassador to the Vatican . Serving during most of Bill Clinton’s second term, the former Congresswoman was in Rome during the upheaval in Bosnia . On paper the Vatican diplomatic corps seems like a ceremonial position, but because there are so many embassies converged in a fairly secure and stable setting, the diplomats have often served as a listening post and message center for the world’s other events. Boggs, a genteel, open and friendly person becomes stealth on some topics about her ambassadorship saying simply that she cannot talk about them.
Other incidents, however, had less impact on international politics and more to do with a Boggs’ specialty, being nice. Two involved American ships docked in the Naples harbor. Boggs recalled that when U.S. Navy ships docked in Naples they frequently had a surplus of food items that, according to regulations, were thrown away because they passed their expiration date, but were nevertheless still safe to eat. Working with Catholic Church groups, Boggs helped arrange for the food to be trucked to refugees in Bosnia . The maneuver was done quietly, without any fanfare.
Then there were the boys on the bus. Boggs had made the acquaintance of members of the Swiss Guard, the protectors of the Pope. The Guard members, a unit that has not had a good fight since defending Pope Clement VII from Spanish and German invaders during the Sack of Rome in 1527, are known for their nifty Renaissance costumes. Though they do have guns locked away somewhere, just in case, their everyday weaponry consists mostly of ceremonial lances. “They’re really boys,” Boggs recalled, and, as such, one request they had was to visit an American aircraft carrier. Boggs handled the arrangements so that a Swiss Guard unit made the trip to Naples where they stood wide-eyed on the flight deck. The trip was so popular that another Guard unit petitioned for a similar visit.
Boggs was very fond of the Pope. She remembered him as a man of good wit. He was troubled with Parkinson’s Disease by the time she was there. Once she witnessed him greeting a young priest. The Pope’s arm had a slight tremble as the two prelates shook hands. “My son,” John Paul teased, “why are you shaking so much?”
Some of the tales were told when Boggs was on a panel at a recent Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival. Also on the panel was Journalist Steve Roberts, Boggs’ son-in-law, who describes himself as a “Jewish guy from New Jersey .” He told the festival audience about once accompanying Boggs and his wife, Cokie Roberts, to the Pope’s Summer home where they were invited to a small group mass. “We were escorted to an outside room,” Roberts recalled, “then brought into the chapel and as we walked in, John Paul was already there dressed in white and deep in prayer. It was a deeply spiritual moment.”
Less spiritual was the political mission. Recalling her time at the Vatican, Boggs joked, “Cokie told me that I had the toughest job in politics, representing Bill Clinton to the Pope.”
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