VATICAN CITY — Almost nothing is normal at the Vatican these days.
I was surprised this morning that Pope Benedict XVI’s meeting with Romanian President Traian Basescu seemed so much like any other audience with a visiting head of state held in the last eight years.
The only difference was that after the president left, Salvatore Mazza and I were allowed to greet the pope on behalf of the International Association of Journalists Accredited to the Vatican. Mazza, a reporter for Avvenire, the Italian Catholic daily, is president of the association. I am secretary.
In the name of the more than 400 journalists permanently accredited to the Vatican, Mazza thanked the pope “for these eight years,” and I thanked him for his clear and patient teaching style.
The rest of the audience went by the book:
The president and his entourage arrived in the Apostolic Palace, walked by Swiss Guards at attention in the Clementine Hall, and then were led to a little waiting room for 10 minutes.
At 11:06, Pope Benedict greeted Basescu in the Room of the Throne, saying, “Welcome, welcome.” The president thanked the pope for allowing him to keep the appointment set long before Pope Benedict announced his resignation. The pope told him again that he was welcome and turned the president so they both were facing photographers.
Pope Benedict led the president into his private library, where the two sat on either side of the pope’s desk and had a private conversation for almost 20 minutes.
The journalists, who had been led to a small waiting room during the private meeting, were escorted back into the papal library as Basescu presented the 12 members of his entourage.
The Romanian gave Pope Benedict a huge book, made of handmade paper, recounting the history of Christianity in Romania. He told the pope it was made under the supervision of the Romanian Orthodox Church.
After turning several pages of the book, the pope told Basescu, “My gift is modest.”
Nestled in a large white gift box was a medal in a filigree frame. “It’s a medal of my pontificate,” the pope said.
Pope Benedict walked Basescu to the door of the library. Gripping the pope’s hand, the president said, “I will pray for you.”
The pope has another presidential audience scheduled for tomorrow morning: a meeting with the president of Guatemala, which also was on the pope’s agenda before he announced his resignation.
Only two politicians received appointments with the pope after the Feb. 11 announcement: tomorrow evening Pope Benedict will hold a private meeting with Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti and the morning of Feb. 23 he will meet Italian President Giorgio Napolitano.