… and also Bob and Nancy Amerson. Mom met Pope John XXIII two years before Jackie Kennedy did. Jack Kennedy did not get to the Vatican until the summer of 1963, by which time Pope John XXIII had died; the President met with Pope Paul VI.
Both of the Kennedy visits were organized by my father. And Mom’s meeting was because of Dad’s work with the American Embassy.
Here’s an exerpt about Mom’s meeting from a chapter in the memoir I am completing, WHEN THE DICTATOR FLEW OVER OUR HOUSE: AN AMERICAN EMBASSY FAMILY MEMOIR.
]Dad was posted to the United States Information Agency branch office in Milan, Italy in December, 1959. The American Embassy, of which Dad’s operation was part, was 350 miles south in Rome. When Dad had meetings there in the spring of 1960, Mom went along. My sister Susie and I were looked after by our live-in maid, Maria Pia.]
Dad had a two days of meetings at the Embassy in Rome the following week, and Mom took the train down with him for some all-too-rare alone time. She luxuriated in the pleasure of walking at her own pace, browsing the chic shop windows on Via Condotti. She hopped on a bus if one came by, but otherwise wandered through the Forum and the burnt Sienna alleyways of Trastevere, downing a quick cappuccino midmorning while standing at the bar like everyone else, chewing on a plain roll. She didn’t want to risk a tastier meal that would have included garlic. She had an afternoon date with the Pope.
When Dad showed her the two tickets to the Vatican — gifts from the editor of Milan’s leading newspaper, Il Tempo — Mom was cautious. Was it right for barely practicing Protestants to take such coveted spots away from devoted Catholics? Dad was assured by his newspaper colleague that all were welcome at the papal audience. When Dad’s Embassy meetings conflicted with the event, Dad’s boss, Branch PAO (Public Affairs Officer) Max Kraus, snapped up the ticket.
By noon, Mom was back at the hotel to change into her long-sleeved black dress and a veil she’d bought for the occasion. She draped it over her head; it felt like putting on a costume at for a modern dance performance. A very pious costume.
She met the PAO in front of the Vatican where they joined a group of about 50 people. They were herded through a series of rooms, finally dead-ending at the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall. Mom and Max, the lapsed Presbyterian and the Jew, lined up against the walls and waited. She adjusted her veil.
Pope John XXIII entered without ceremony to muted clapping. He made his way around the room, pausing to speak with each person. Mom watched the protocol — head down; genuflect; kiss the ring. Non-Catholics could shake the hand, but no one had done so before the Pope stopped in front of her. She dropped her head, sensing before seeing the hand being offered to her. The Pope smiled, a gentle soul. Shaking his hand felt like the most natural thing in the world.
“Nancy Amerson, Ambasciata Americana.” American Embassy, Mom said.
“Molto bene,” Pope John XXIII said. Very nice.
The Pope extended his hand to Max. As the diplomat shook it, he added a few words expressing the Embassy’s gratitude about a recent Vatican pro-American op-ed piece. As the group was ushered back out into the streets of Rome, Mom began composing her letter home. They’d never believe it. And she would send the veil to Fina [our maid in Caracas], now working for family friends in Caracas. Imagine, having something blessed by a Pope.”
Check out how closely Mom followed protocol. Here’s Jackie two years later.
And President Kennedy’s 1963 trip through Germany, Ireland, England and Italy (CLICK to see a longer, narrated film) included a visit with Pope Paul VI (with his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver) just days after being elected to that august office.
Dad organized both meetings but stayed out of camera range. His duties as Press Attaché, American Embassy, Rome were pretty heady stuff for a South Dakota farm boy. I’ll share more from the memoir soon….