Gate-crashers at the Vatican?

Pope Benedict XVI greets people at general audience (CNS/Paul Haring)

VATICAN CITY — The news that a Virginia couple managed to infiltrate a state dinner at the White House raised a question: Does the Vatican ever have to deal with gate-crashers?

The answer is yes — but remarkably rarely.

Every week the pope meets and greets hundreds of people in VIP lines in public and private audiences, and he frequently distributes Communion to a selection of individuals at papal liturgies.

Participants usually go through ID checks before they’re allowed near the pontiff, but if a group is large enough it’s possible for outsiders to slip in. In these bigger groups, the Vatican relies in part on the expert and watchful eyes of the papal gentlemen, a corps of experienced ushers who quietly and discreetly bounce anyone who shouldn’t be there.

Vatican gate-crashers have sometimes included imposters who dress up in ecclesiastical garb so they can be closer to the pope. Massimo Sansolini, a retired papal usher, once recounted in a book how he could recognize false nuns, priests and even bishops who tried to get into the prima fila receiving line during general audiences under Pope John Paul II.

The screening system is not failsafe, however. In 1997, a man posing as Mexico’s ambassador to the Holy See embarrassed Vatican officials by sneaking into a general audience and personally introducing his family to the pope.

In 1988, police arrested an arson suspect in Rome and found in his room a scrapbook of newspaper photographs showing him with a number of clerical personalities: walking in procession directly behind Polish Cardinal Jozef Glemp, overlooking Italian Cardinal Achille Silvestrini at his investiture, and kneeling as he kissed Pope John Paul II’s ring.

The man had a knack for ingratiating himself with authorities at ceremonial events, often showing up in special uniforms. Officials said they found his “curial demeanor” convincing.

Planned Parenthood employee becomes pro-life advocate

The Nov. 29 issue of Our Sunday Visitor weekly newspaper just came across my desk, and one of its main features not to be missed is a Q-and-A with a young Texas woman named Abby Johnson, who made national headlines a few weeks ago over the abortion issue.

She’d worked for several years as a volunteer and then as an employee of Planned Parenthood — even being honored as employee of the year in 2008 — but she decided she could no longer do her job after she viewed an ultrasound of an abortion performed by a physician at the Planned Parenthood clinic she headed as director in Bryan/College Station, Texas.

She tells OSV’s Valerie Schmalz that as the center’s director she didn’t normally assist the physicians there. But on this particular day the doctor chose to do “an ultrasound-guided procedure” on his patient — which Johnson said was in itself unusual — and asked Johnson for her help in holding the ultrasound equipment.

“What I saw during the procedure was so gruesome to me, and something I had never experienced before, that I just thought, ‘I’ll never do this again,'” she says.

The day she left her job — not an easy choice because she and her husband and their daughter are dependent on two incomes — she walked outside and joined two people praying outside the clinic.  They were there as part of the Coalition for Life, a local group that originated 40 Days for Life, now a national movement. Johnson said in the past she was always critical of prayers and protests outside clinics.

She said her husband and other family members have been very supportive of her. She noted that they were never really “sold” anyway on Planned Parenthood’s mission.