Olive pit rosaries, crucifixes, statues of Mary and Jesus filled the storefront window and apparently my grandson’s eyes. We had just visited the Pontifical Gregorian University and were headed to the Trevi Fountain when Marco paused to study the religious goods on display. “Sometimes, between classes,” I explained, “I would come here to order a papal blessing for some relative back home.”

His brow furled in a slow-forming question. I anticipated. “It was…still is…I suppose, a Catholic tradition to get a personalized scroll with the pope’s picture and the announcement of his blessing for a special occasion like a wedding or anniversary. They would send me the money and something extra for my trouble—always appreciated by a coin-strapped seminarian.”

“What is all this stuff?” Marco asked.

Where to begin? How to explain the tectonic shifts the Vatican Council and the two generations since had made in Catholic liturgy and devotions, for some, me especially.

“Let’s go inside,” I suggested.

As I was explaining that a rosary was a way to track the repetition of fifty Hail Mary prayers. Marco interrupted. “I thought the ‘Hail Mary’ was a football play where you threw a long pass, at the last second, to win the game.”

I jabbed him in the shoulder. “No, It’s not about Franco Harris and the Steelers.”

“Huh? Never heard of him.”

Of course, so much was new to him. He knew so little of the changes to the church that had occurred over time…my time. Like the papal processions when I first got to Rome in the early 60’s. The Pope would be in a chair carried on the shoulders of six stout men. A cleric would walk ahead lighting a piece of flax that quickly burned, calling out, ‘Sic transit gloria mundi’…so go the vanities of the world…supposedly to remind his holiness that pomp and power were short lived. These days the pope is driven through throngs of faithful in a bulletproof pope-mobile.

“May, I help you?” a young woman carefully enunciated, cutting off my reverie and swerving me into another memory lane. Her auburn hair, peaches and cream complexion and pale brown eyes reminded me of a saleswoman I had befriended back then, in this very shop. A lot of papal blessings had passed between us.

Marco held her eye. She ducked her chin, gave a Mona Lisa smile. Just like Elena used to do to me. “You look so much like a woman who worked here sixty years ago,” I remarked.

The girl laughed out loud. “Elena. My grandmother. This our store. My name too.”


She nodded vigorously. “Nonna,” she called toward a curtain, excitement in her voice, “vieni.”

A small, slightly-bowed woman, hair white but styled the same way I remembered it, emerged.

“Che c’e figlia mia?” she asked as she paused, stared at me. Slowly here her eyes widened in recognition, then dissolved into a fondness that lit up her face. I could almost see her scrolling back the years, past my wrinkles, my clothes. Calculating. I was no longer in a cassock. The young man who resembled me, could easily be my son…no grandson.

“Padre Marco,” she murmured. We drank each other in. Neither of us spoke. No need. Two people on opposite sides of a wide, slow moving river pondering what could have been. Might have been.

“Stai contento?” she asked.

Si. I’m happy.”


I reached out, clutched both her hands, bridging time.

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