After the second bottle of wine, His Holiness really loosens up. He kicks off his red loafers (yes, loafers) and slips off his zucchetto. Another glass or two and it gets easier to see that he’s just another white-haired old man, frustrated with the way the world has changed since he was a boy. Certainly many good changes, to be sure, but “the young people, nowadays…” I nod sagely.
The table talk almost instantly quiets down, as it usually does once His Holiness starts in with that tone of voice. The other men, most of them with white hair too, even if their skin isn’t, lean in a little, their soutanes rustling around their legs like ladies’ long dresses from a bygone day, equally weary of and curious for these stories. Will it be the Hitler Youth? His years as a professor? Time spend with John? with Paul? with John Paul? Will he become increasingly strident during this monologue, or disgusted? He definitely won’t whine. (That’s a little hard to imagine anyway. The Pope? Whine? Maybe back when he was a little boy in lederhosen. Do German children ever whine? Maybe once.)
But tonight is different. Because I’m here.
Dinner with the Pope, in this day and age, isn’t like having dinner with any other man. The micro-thin veneer of respectability sported by the ultra-worldly popes of the Renaissance (like the sexy Borgia popes with their in-house mistresses and the gentle pitter-patter of the ever-increasing number of their soon-to-be-legitimized children’s feet swelling to the din of a thunderstorm down the halls of the Papal residence) has grown thicker and harder than a granite countertop.
While that may be good (indeed, almost "American" in its sense of puritanical respectability), it makes my job much harder. I’m only a little ashamed to have used, over the years, my “feminine wiles” to get a man to do something for me, though I’ve yet to use them to get a man to do something for me that he didn’t want to do anyway—even if his desire was subconscious. And though I am very conscious that I am surrounded by men whose very public pronouncements of chastity do little or nothing (depending on their cultural background) to mask their all-too-masculine appreciation for feminine attractiveness, they are still churchmen and so we must maintain the veneer. In fact, if only for tonight, I am happy to do that.
I’ve occasionally wanted to be a nun in my life, but never so much as now, when having a veil and no makeup might lend a force to my words that no amount of eyelash batting and under-the-table footsie can give. But no amount of soft and sexy can compensate when you have to give a man hard words. Words that tell him he’s wrong. Every word as hard as a brick. A brick he can either use to build a bridge for further discussion, if he’s wise, or one he can use to brick himself up into a wall of stubbornness, if he’s not. While I’m hoping for the first, I’m figuring on the latter.
“Your Holiness, I’d like to ask you something.”