Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Bless my sneakers, Father

Sometimes, even the Pope can't perform a miracle

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I will always remember it as the year my sneakers were blessed by the Pope.

It was 1978 -- Grease and Saturday Night Fever were box-office smashes, Stayin' Alive rocked the airwaves and the first test-tube baby was born in Britain -- when my buddy Danny and I made the trek to Europe.

We had become close friends in Grade 12 after I moved to Winnipeg and enrolled at St. Paul's, the all-boys, Jesuit-run high school down the street from my house. I went to St. Paul's for deeply spiritual reasons -- it was the only school in the area where I could play football.

The first stop on our year-long European adventure was Rome, the Eternal City. Armed with passports, overstuffed backpacks, tragic 1970s haircuts and an unabashed sense of wonder, we were fish out of water.

After several days staring at fountains, cathedrals and ruins, Sunday arrived and Danny explained he needed to attend mass at St. Peter's Basilica. I am not an expert, but as basilicas go, they don't get any more impressive than St. Peter's.

As the mass wound down, the two of us were among thousands of spectators and pilgrims ogling from the sidelines as a procession of hundreds of priests in ornate robes snaked slowly down the centre of the church.

It was an awe-inspiring sight and, as the procession neared, Danny's eyes lit up with recognition. "Hey," he chirped, pointing at a slender figure, "that's my priest!"

With that, he broke from the crowd, strolled over to the chanting procession and gently tapped a priest on the shoulder.

"Hi, Louis!" Danny burbled to the surprised priest.

"DANNY!" Father Louis gasped with delight.

It was a surreal scene, and not long after, we found ourselves parked at a street café catching up on old times.

It turned out that, unknown to my buddy, his parish priest was in Rome on a sabbatical. "I just happen to have tickets to an audience with the Pope," Louis told us over coffee. "Why don't you guys join me?"

And so, just days after landing in Europe, there we were, two slack-jawed kids from Winnipeg, getting an inside tour of Vatican City.

After perusing the Vatican Gardens, we arrived at a large hall, where we got to hang out with the Pope. And by "hang out with" I mean "were in the same room as."

It was an intimate affair -- there was just Danny, Father Louis, myself, and approximately 2,000 other people. "As I recall," Danny chortled as we chatted via our iPads the other night, "we were seated at the very back of the hall behind row after row of extremely happy nuns."

Pope Paul VI was carried in on a luxurious litter in the manner of an ancient sultan. We sat for what felt like hours, anxiously awaiting what I believed would be a highlight of my life -- the moment when the Pope bestows a blessing on the crowd and whatever sacred objects they've brought with them.

Beside me, Danny held a large rosary he'd bought for his grandmother. As for me, in one sweaty hand I clutched a gold necklace, a gift for my little sister, while in the other I gripped my beloved but battered basketball sneakers. In my youthful mind, I hoped a papal blessing would do something years and years of practice had failed to do -- give me the ability, finally, to dunk a (bad word) basketball.

My fragrant footwear drew confused looks from a few nearby nuns, but no one complained. I will mention here that, in papal news, 1978 was a busy year. It's called the Year of the Three Popes. In August, not long after we saw him, Paul VI passed away. (I'm confident we had nothing to do with that.) He was replaced soon after by John Paul I, who died in his sleep just 33 days later and was replaced in October by John Paul II.

When Danny and I returned home, one of the first things we did was hit the gym, where I laced up my freshly blessed sneakers, grabbed a basketball and attacked the hoop.

I soared towards the heavens and, to cut a long story mercifully short, discovered it would take more than divine intervention and a running start to help me dunk.

Later, squatting on the floor in defeat, I scowled at my sneakers.

"Hey, don't blame the Pope," Danny advised. "You were probably holding them the wrong way."

I know he was right. Still, all these years later, I cling to the faint hope my dunking dream will one day come true. Because sometimes you just have to have faith.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2013 A2

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