Advance Report from Rome

December 26, 2000

Last night, we flew from Rome (through Detroit) and have arrived home safely with good news. We are more convinced than ever that our trip to the Vatican will have significant consequences. And the allies we have in Rome are amazing. Here’s our report.

On Saturday, Dec. 16, angered by the Pope’s cordial meetings with an extremist, right-wing Austrian politician, several thousand Italians marched on the Vatican. Protesters throwing rocks and sticks were beaten back by 3,000 Roman policeman with clubs and tear gas. Hundreds (including at least 27 police) were injured.

On Monday, Dec. 18, less than two days later, Bill and I sat down with Italian police officials to request a permit to protest on the very same boulevard leading to St. Peter’s Square. Needless to say, the police said "No!" Later, we discovered three reasons for their refusal to issue us a permit.

First, there is an ancient Vatican concordat with Italy that Italian police will never allow any kind of demonstration or protest to occur inside or even near Vatican City (the area immediately surrounding St. Peter’s Square). And over the centuries the police have kept their promise. We were surprised to learn that in this land of passionate protest, no one demonstrates (let alone gets a permit to demonstrate) anywhere near the Vatican.

Second, the Dec. 16 demonstration (less than 48 hours before our arrival) was one of the first attempts in history to bring a protest directly to the Vatican city-state. The memory of that bloody moment was just too fresh for the police to even think of allowing even a quiet, nonviolent protest by less than two dozen people at the same site.

Third, just three years ago, a gay Italian writer burned himself to death on St. Peter’s Square. Last summer, the World Pride event was condemned by the Pope as "godless" and "an insult to the Holy See." The Soulforce, DignityUSA delegation would be the third "gay" protest in a very short period of time (as Vatican history goes). The Vatican (and thus the Italian police) just want the "gay" issue to go away.

And though our meetings with Vatican officials were cordial, we were reminded that it will take many years and many miracles for Church teachings (about us) to change. And any direct action we take in that regard must be carefully and prayerfully planned.

While Bill and I were puzzling our options, we met with Italian activists (who had planned World Pride 2000 in Rome) and with ‘gay’ and ‘gay-friendly’ Catholics. The hundred or so Italians we met from these two wonderful communities had one message. Since no one else has succeeded at even getting close to the Vatican (let alone at changing the minds and hearts of Vatican officials), "YOU MUST TRY!" And, they added clearly, "IF YOU TRY, WE WILL HELP YOU."

Since our own spiritual renewal is the primary goal of a Soulforce action, we know from the beginning that any direct action we take on behalf of justice and truth, will be a success. But what kind of direct action could move our brothers in the Vatican to reconsider their tragic teachings and actions against us?

Our original plan was deeply moving on paper. On the flight to Rome, I imagined our delegation gathered in the Campo Di Fiori Square at the base of a statue honoring the patron saint of protest, Giordano Bruno, a ‘faithful dissenter’ who had been burned at the stake in 1600 for protesting unjust Church policies. We would walk together in a kind of funeral procession behind muffled drums carrying photos of gay Catholics who had killed themselves carrying banners and wearing shirts asking the Vatican to Stop Spiritual Violence. We would stand quiet vigil and wait for a meeting with Church officials. If the police came, some of us would be arrested. Others not.

Fr. Brown, an American priest on Cardinal Ratzinger’s staff, made it perfectly clear to us that our planned action was ‘inflammatory.’ And after a short, defensive pause, we agreed. Our planned action was dramatic and a perfect photo op, but it didn’t bring us any closer to mutual understanding let alone reconciliation. We needed an action that would win minds and hearts inside (and outside) the Vatican City-state and not cause further misunderstanding between us. So, here is the basic outline of the new direct action we propose.

Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2001, most of our 24 delegates will arrive at DaVinci Airport in Rome. We will go directly to the Hotel Spring House. Check in. Unpack. Rest. Take our own short walking tours of this fascinating neighborhood (in the shadow of the walls of the Vatican just across the street from the entrance to the Sistine Chapel). We’ll have dinner together. Be briefed and go to bed early.

Wednesday, Jan. 3, Thursday, Jan. 4, Friday, Jan. 5

Each day, we will arise early for a time of spiritual preparation. On Wednesday, for example, our morning meditation will be at the Circus Maximus where the martyrs were burned alive, crucified, and thrown to wild animals. (Don’t worry. We have no similar plans for our delegates.) After breakfast on Wednesday, we will be trained for the day’s action, pack Christmas stockings for the children of an orphanage, and walk together (carrying our gifts for the children) up the Via Della Conciliazione to St. Peter’s Square. This is not a protest nor a demonstration. Our matching shirts will say it all: GOD’S GAY CHILDREN BRING GIFTS…BLESS THEM. (I FIGLI DI DIO PORTANO REGALI…DATEGLI LA BENDEDIZIONE.)

Remember, the Vatican is very big on giving blessings. Yesterday newspapers in Rome featured front page photos of John Paul II blessing referees from the World Soccer League. Animals are blessed. Crosses, statues, and all kinds of trinkets are blessed. Tourists and pilgrims come from every country in the world to be blessed. We are simply joining the line to have our gifts blessed as well. (Wednesday, our gifts to the orphans; Thursday, our gifts to people living in an AIDS hospice; Friday, to the occupants of a home for battered women.) Each of our delegates will bring one gift for an Italian child (orphan); one for a person living with AIDs; and one for an abused woman in a battered women’s shelter.

Each day, while other pilgrims enter the long lines leading into St. Peter’s Square, we will stop at a police barrier separating Rome from the Vatican City-state. We have sent faxes to Cardinal Ratzinger and to many other Vatican officials notifying them of our presence at the barrier (January 3-6) asking that our gifts be blessed by a priest. We will wait facing the huge Nativity scene built on St. Peter’s Square for the season. If a priest appears (or doesn’t appear) to bless our gifts, after a short silent vigil we will board our bus each day to deliver our gifts (to the orphanage, to the hospice, to the home for battered women).

We haven’t decided yet about spending an hour in candlelight vigils at the Vatican each evening. We will decide that together under Richard Murphy’s leadership.

Saturday, January 6, 2001 (Epiphany)

At 9:30 AM Saturday we will attend the Festive Te Deum Mass led by the Pope in St. Peter’s Square ending the Jubilee Year, closing the Holy Door for another century, and celebrating the New Millennium. After the Mass, when the crowds have departed, we will repeat our march to the barrier, only this time the gifts will be ourselves: "GOD’S GAY CHILDREN BRING GIFTS…BLESS THEM."

Obviously, we don’t know what will happen next. We don’t even know what will happen on our walks earlier in the week. But we have an activist Italian lawyer activist who specialize in civil rights. She reminded us that Italian police don’t want to arrest American pilgrims, especially American pilgrims who just want to be blessed. She also told us that those arrested for assaulting the police in the bloody riot last weekend, were released at the end of the day without being charged or fined.

On Sunday, January 7, most of us will say, "Arrivederci, Roma."

Mel White and Bill Carpenter (Advance Team)

For more information on Soulforce or Dignity/USA,
see or
Read the Open Letter to President Clinton