Virginia Barton

Shoe shoe-ing the outsiders in Rome

Catholic Herald, 20 May 1988


Travel may broaden the mind, it can also flatten the feet. I flew out of Rome last week with two monstrous, painful cushions on the end of my legs in place of the size five’s I arrived with.

This sorry condition was possibly due to the unexpected heat or a surfeit of pasta, but more likely it was the result of trudging across acres of granite and marble. Feet are pretty vital in any upright situation, and the demands made on them by the pilgrim tourist can play havoc with even the most co-operative pair.

Somehow I never seem to have the right shoes when away from home. One needs so many, for this or that occasion, for fair weather or foul. Old-fashioned nuns have the answer: bare feet, sandals and a habit, and they’re ready for anything. My visit to Rome was therefore somewhat earthbound, pre-occupied as I was with foot-gear.

public_transportation_tourism_829835No stranger to the Eternal City, I yet managed to have my purse stolen on the notorious 64 bus. It had enough money in it to buy, you guessed it, a pair of shoes. Gypsies are a menace in Rome and if you are going there this summer beware of the ones carrying cardboard boxes. They chuck these over the heads of unsuspecting tourists, hold them down, then rapidly whip through pockets and handbags.

Beguiling gypsy children “doing” the buses must be responsible for my kissing the Holy Father’s ring in wholly unsuitable footwear.

Not wishing to brag, I did meet him, and am glad to say he looked fit and well before setting out for South America. The rumours of possible abdication appear to be totally unfounded, if the clerics cluttering the corridors are to be believed.

Incidentally, he was wearing sensible brown leather slip-ons.

Being on holiday is like being ill. One is not quite oneself. The daily habits of the rest of the year, rational and deliberate, evaporate in the first gust of hot air. My powers of concentration on matters artistic and architectural dwindled to mere gawping.

As for praying in Rome, there are far too many distractions in the way of ceilings, mosaic floors, curlicue pillars, frescos and the like. No wonder we are exhorted to shut ourselves in our rooms to pray!

I found myself lumping all my previously-planned pious intentions into one big bundle and offering them up as a job lot. St Thérѐse of Lisieux recommends praying for your distractions (the rosary-jingling neighbour in the pew, the other with a persistent sniff); in Rome that is tested to the utmost. But one can always pray for the benefactors of yesteryear who bequeathed such a wealth of beauty.

Always on the lookout for somewhere to sit, I spent a happy hour on a plinth. Overhead towered one Nicola Spedalieri, forever fixed in massive bronze, stroked by the branches  and blossom of some Judas trees. What must it be like, I wondered, to be a non-Catholic in Rome?

A stray English Protestant, encountered later at lunch, confessed he felt he was trespassing. Rather as one would feel at Mecca, supposing one could sneak in. This sad remark prompted a view of the Catholic Church back home. It looks quite different from a Roman perspective, like a small boat in a flotilla of other grander vessels. It is useful to see that little boat against the background of the obvious universality of the Church.

I had hoped to bring a less pedestrian rasp from Rome, to tell of lofty concepts and describe gloriously the wonders there. But however muddled, confused and distracted one is by the experience, it is always a spiritual shot in the arm. The jumble of impressions, sifted over quietly at home, convince this particular traveller of the need to double our efforts at reconciliation within the Christian Church.

We need to pray for the Pope, for precious priests and religious and for all peoples, even – nay specially – for thieving gypsies.


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