What’s in a name?

I am back in Florida after a pretty eventful work week in Pennsylvania. It hit me like a Mack truck yesterday that truly, I’m one of those people who splits his time between two places. Trust me, it’s not as glamorous as it sounds.

Anyhow, I’m home now and I’m sorting through my belongings and trying to figure out what’s coming with me when I move and what’s being donated on my way out of town.

As I’ve been sorting through my things today I came across the stuff I collected when I was in Rome with JD, Mike and Patrizia five years ago. Five years down the road and my memories of that trip still strike me to my core.

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I grew up in a household so Catholic a pope would have approved. It took me a very long time to be grateful for that but it’s with unadulterated gratitude that I look back on those years now.

It starts with my name, Paul. I am named for Pope Paul VI.

The man who became known as Pope Paul VI was born Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini in Breschia. My parents couldn’t have picked a better namesake. In the years between the two World Wars, he served as the Papal Nuncio to Poland where he was alarmed by Europe’s embrace of nationalism. He observed this from Warsaw in 1923: “This form of nationalism treats foreigners as enemies, especially foreigners with whom one has common frontiers. Then one seeks the expansion of one’s own country at the expense of the immediate neighbors  People grow up with a feeling of being hemmed in. Peace becomes a transient compromise between wars.”

That sounds like something I’d say.

Anyhow, when JD, Mike, Patrizia and I were in Rome I insisted that we go to Vatican City. I’d grown up in a household where the idea that all Catholics had to go to Rome at some point in his life was a given. It wasn’t enough to go to Rome though, it was vital that all of us end up in The Vatican at some point.

So off to The Vatican we went one afternoon.

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Nothing could have prepared me for not only what I saw there, but the effect The Vatican would have on me. I’ll never forget the first time I walked into St. Peter’s Square. It was massive on a scale I couldn’t have imagined. It’s a real engineering marvel and as I stood next to the obelisk in its center, it started to hit me that a who’s who of Western Civ had stood on that spot before me. King Henry VIII walked across that piazza (though in an earlier form)  when he petitioned Rome to grant him a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Catherine the Great would have crossed those pavers as would have everyone from Ben Franklin to Ronald Reagan.  My own great-great-grandparents stopped there during the grand tour they took during their honeymoon in the years following the American Civil War. It’s impossible to be in a place like that and not to feel the march of history and your place in it.

When we walked into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time I needed to be excused from our merry band so I could compose myself. Not only had the notables of the last 500 years been in that space, so had my parents 25 years earlier.

When I walked into St. Peter’s for the first time, I got a glimpse into my Dad’s heart and how I was brought up made sense for the first time ever. That sounds odd but being there in person gave me a sense of who I was like nothing else ever had. As I walked though that space I was alternately blown away by its beauty and imagining my Dad being there in his herringbone jacket and connecting with the faith that’s given him meaning for his whole life.

When I pulled myself together and rejoined my friends, we walked through the Basilica and then went down into the lower levels so we could see the mausoleums of the popes.

Once down there we came across the mausoleum of Paul VI. Talk about touching one’s inner self. I bear that man’s name and it was humbling to stand in front of his grave to say the least. I’d always known I was named for Paul VI and my middle name, Gregory, comes from St. Gregory; I was born on his feast day. I am a Catholic in much the same way I am a Pennsylvanian or a redhead. I couldn’t deny it even if I tried. Some things are in my DNA, regardless of my opinion.

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Again, once I saw St. Peter’s and Paul VI’s mausoleum with my own eyes, my upbringing made sense. Aside from that, through me and by virtue of my name, Giovanni Battista Enrico Antonio Maria Montini gets the chance to live on. That’s not something I take lightly. Being someone’s namesake is heady stuff and despite what ever disagreements I have with the stances he took, it’s my job to continue his legacy. It’s my job to be a decent, loyal and loving human being.

Say what you want to about Catholicism and the Papacy, but no one can dispute that Paul VI was a good and decent man. He was committed the the people of the world and a crazy idea called peace. Standing in front of the place where he reposes was an incredible experience and I had to excuse myself again so I could pull myself back together.

Packing up my belongings has proved itself to be a far more emotional and taxing experience than I expected it to be. But sometimes, emotional outbreaks are good things.


12 thoughts on “What’s in a name?

  1. Paul, I really enjoyed reading this post and learning a little bit more about you and your background. I’m not religious at all, but I can imagine how overwhelming it must have been for you to be in The Vatican and being practically next to Pope Paul VI. All I know about him is what you shared here, but I have to say he sounds like my kind of guy 🙂

    Good luck with the sorting, and Merry Christmas!

      • Too much festivity for me. My mom and sister here christmas eve, then Gene’s family christmas day. My sister’s birthday dinner at JJJefries Thursday night (have you been there yet? If not, save it for you and I to go when you get back), then Gene’s cousin’s christmas bash on Friday. The booze will flow freely for this introvert.

  2. Oddly enough I had the same emotional reaction visiting the Taj Mahal, no childhood connection though. India will always live in my heart. Merry Christmas!

  3. I’m with Melody. I love the personal stories that you’ve been telling. Hearing about your experiences and how they affected you makes me feel bonded to you.

  4. Did you go on the excavation tour of the Vatican? It leads you down and down, through the layers of time, until you reach the “rock on which this church was built”. i am a lapsed catholic, but that really got to me.

    • I did Meg and it left me weak in the knees. I’ll never forget what it felt like to see St. Peter’s grave from underneath the altar. I came away from that day a changed man. I’m hardly a devout Catholic but the chance to connect with my ancestors? Sign me up!

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