I still remember that sunny spring afternoon very well. We were living in my grandfather’s hunting lodge in Austria at the time, and school had finished early that day. Our little group of six keen Hungarian boys scouts was meeting in the stone cottage by the old mill. Our leader had a surprise for us: a jamboree at LakeComo in Italy during the summer holidays, and all of us would go! After the excitement had died down a little, he told us there was more. We had been invited by the Vatican to come to Rome after the jamboree for an audience with the Pope! This had been arranged by the Jesuits running our school.
The jamboree was a huge success. Cooking on open fires, sleeping in tents, swimming in the beautiful lake, and meeting other scouts from all over Europe, was a wonderful adventure for a 12 year old boy. However, the best was yet to come; Rome.
We were met at the railway station by a Monsignor wearing a funny hat who took us to our lodgings – a Franciscan monastery near the Vatican. Our audience with His Holiness, Pope John XXIII, was scheduled for 10 am the next day.
Walking up the huge marble staircase leading to the audience chamber – heart pounding with excitement like a drum – past armed Swiss Guards in outrageous costumes was an unforgettable experience. Of course we were not alone; there were at least a hundred other guests from around the world making their way up the stairs to meet the Pontiff.
Looking smart in our freshly laundered and pressed scout’s uniforms, we lined up behind our leader at our designated spot, and waited for the Pontiff to arrive. Moments later, the doors opened, and His Holiness entered. A hush fell upon the audience chamber as all eyes turned towards the small, frail-looking old man dressed all in white, walking slowly down the carpet; a remarkable presence had arrived, radiating an aura that sent tingles down your spine. It filled every corner of the large chamber and became stronger as the little man came closer. Instead of walking past our group, he stopped, and addressed our scout leader. Speaking fluent German, the Pontiff told our leader that he wanted to meet us.
One by one, we were asked to step forward and introduce ourselves. His Holiness seemed to know all about us. He knew that we were children of Hungarian refugees who had escaped during the Revolution and were attending a Jesuit school in Austria. When my turn came, I froze. I kept staring at my shoes, unable to move. Then I felt something touching my head and looked up. The Pontiff had placed his hand on my head and was looking at me. I cannot quite explain it, but something strange happened at that moment which I have never forgotten. All apprehension fell away, and a feeling of tremendous peace and joy welled up inside me. I cannot remember the questions he asked me, but I do remember that I had no trouble finding the answers.
Many years later, in Egypt, whilst doing research for my book The Empress Holds the Key I met an Ethiopian holy man. He was blind, with a face creased like old parchment, but when he touched my hand, memories of my meeting with the Pope as a boy came flooding back with alarming clarity. I had the same feeling, only this time, I knew what it was: what passed from the old man to me when his hand touched mine, was love. It was an inspirational moment which I’ve tried to capture in the book.
Also, my keen interest in the Vatican, the Scriptures, and Church history began during that memorable trip to Rome. A fascination with the Prophet Moses and the Ten Commandments reaches back to the same time. I remember standing in front of Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses with horns in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli, wondering …
Impressions and experiences gained in our youth can leave a significant mark which, stored deep within the hidden recesses of our mind, can bubble to the surface in unexpected ways years later. That is what happened to me. The result? The Empress Holds the Key.