Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY — The cameras are trained on the cute baby being foisted up to the pope for a kiss and papal blessing, not on the dapper gentleman trying to handle the precious, often squirming, load with care.
Vatican ushers attend every weekly general audience, helping visitors with special needs and picking out the cutest babies in the crowd for the photo op of a lifetime. And they welcome dignitaries and heads of state visiting the pope with all the pomp and circumstance suited for their stature as “gentlemen in waiting.”
These laymen, called “sediari” or chair-bearers, did just that for centuries: carried the pope on an elevated chair high above the crowds so everyone could catch a glimpse of the pontiff.
But Blessed John Paul II discontinued the practice when he was elected in 1978, preferring to walk and be close to the people.
The “sediari” stayed on, but their role no longer included carrying the pope on their shoulders until Blessed John Paul’s death more than 26 years later.
When he died, Blessed John Paul’s body had to be carried by 12 papal gentlemen on a red velvet stretcher in a solemn procession from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter’s Basilica.
Because so many of the papal ushers were young, only a few older veterans knew how to carry a pope either on the portable chair or the stretcher.
All ushers’ eyes and ears were on Massimo Sansolini, who served four popes after he became a “sediario” in 1964.
He spelled out the correct procedure for smoothly and decorously lifting and carrying the papal platform so that it would stay as horizontal and secure as possible while the men navigated corridors and numerous marble staircases.
Two of his essential rules: “Carry it with just the shoulder, without help from the hand” and always begin walking with the left foot.
The rules were in his recently published Italian memoir, a follow-up to a volume he published in 1999 in which he told of his life as a papal gentleman, revealing the not-often-seen world of the Apostolic Palace, at the service of the pope.
Sansolini told reporters at the second book’s launch April 23 that because there were always 12 “sediari” helping the pope, the vicar of Christ, he always felt like one of the apostles, a servant of the servant of God.
In his book, he described how hard the men tried to remain calm and composed, fighting back the tears, as they transferred the pope’s body before the crowds April 4, then carried the cypress casket from St. Peter’s Basilica outside to the square during the April 8 funeral.
“No layperson had ever been as close to the sacred person of the pontiff as we had for 26 years straight,” he wrote.
While those events briefly put Sansolini and his confreres in the world spotlight, their weekly routine is much less visible.
For the past 16 years, Sansolini has been in charge of helping disabled pilgrims get seating as close to the pope as possible during Wednesday general audiences and other special occasions.
There are special sections in the square or the Paul VI audience hall for church dignitaries, important guests, newlyweds and people with special needs. All the ushers also have their eyes open for parents with tiny infants and help them get as close as they can to the barricade in the general seating section to pass the baby to the pope in the popemobile.
Sansolini said no pope has ever complained about the tradition of individually greeting and blessing the disabled after the general audience, no matter how scarred or infirm they may be: “The pope’s love knows no limits.”
A typical Wednesday starts very early as Sansolini arranges the seating for the disabled section, leaving room for the wheelchairs between the plastic chairs for the caregivers.
Guests are asked to arrive a couple of hours early before the start of the audience so they can clear security and find their section.
Sansolini said he helps pass the time with all of them, chatting about their lives in whatever language they have in common. Sometimes, he said, just a caress or smile is all that it takes to forge a strong bond.
He said he has been humbled by the heroism of the mothers, fathers and caregivers of the gravely ill and physically or mentally challenged adults and children he sees every week.
“There are women like Mother Teresa all over, on every continent,” caring for the unwanted or abandoned.
He said he is always touched by people he meets, from those afflicted with terminal cancer to Iraqi children bearing battle scars, “their tiny bodies, already martyred” in the bloom of their life.
Once he saw a mother come to the audience hall laden with bags and cases, which she scattered on the floor around her.
He was going to gently say something about the disarray, but let it go. He was glad he did, he wrote, because later she pulled out a series of bottles and a syringe and proceeded to feed her child through a stomach tube.
“Every time I am present at an audience I come out with greater faith” from witnessing the unconditional love, joy and hope in people, he said.
“The love of a parent overcomes everything. The human being reaches a fullness of dignity that knows no limits” when it overcomes all challenges and suffering with love and grace, he wrote.