The Night my Mother met a Saint in her Pyjamas.

by Anton Wills-Eve


<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/dp_prompt/daily-prompt-3/”>For Posterity</a>

in reply to  “which post would I most like to be remembered by.”

The date is forever engraved in my memory. It was the 18th of October 1961 and our family was enjoying probably the best holiday we ever had together. My father had spent the summer covering the Franco-Algerian peace talks in Evian on the banks of Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman as the French call it, and he and mum deserved their three week break. My sister managed to bunk off university in London for a few weeks and I did the same from the Sorbonne in Paris. Mum was terminally ill and we all knew it could well be the last time the four of us would get a proper vacation together. We planned a drive down to Rome, via Switzerland, Milan and Florence and were returning, first south to Positano for a week’s stay and returning via Pompeii and up the Mediterranean coast to take in Pisa, Genoa, Monaco,  Nice and the Rhone valley. Five days were to be spent in the Italian capital. The third of these was the most memorable day in my life.

Although an Australian, dad was the chief correspondent in Paris of a major American news organisation and my mother was a retired entertainer of considerable fame in Britain whose health had cut short her career when she was thirty five, just after the start of the second world  war. Indeed my birth in 1942 was the last normal act on her part in her life. Being born and brought up a staunch Catholic in Glasgow in Scotland she made sure that my sister and I were educated at the best Catholic schools we could be. My agnostic father always kept his promise to bring us up as Catholics, making sure we never missed Mass on Sundays, but then as often as possible none of us missed a couple of hours at our local pub on a Sunday lunch time either. Mum was often bed ridden and had to spend her drinking hours with friends at home in our thirty seven room mansion near Richmond Park. You can see we were a rather unusual quartet. But the greatest thing about my formative years was that all the family had terrific senses of humour and, I can honestly say, really loved each other.

I grew up a Catholic who was wonderfully close to their  Faith and served Mass as often as I could. I quite shocked the monks at the Abbey which ran our school when I turned up at the sixth form ball in 1959, I would have been seventeen I suppose, with Teresa, the most stunningly beautiful girl, on my arm. She is still one of my closest friends although we were never sweethearts, but she did enough to dispel the certainty amongst many of the school staff that I was going to become a priest. Indeed she singled out the headmaster, she knew him because her brother was at the school, and said to him in a little louder voice than was necessary, “Yes, Father, Anton really loves God more than any boy I have met. But boy, Father, does he also love me. I think God’s got a battle on his hands with us!”

My mother was told of this story a few days later and phoned Teresa to thank her.  It was with this type of background, both religious and public, that the four of us set out for Italy in the autumn of 1961. When we drove off from the family home on the Ile Saint Louis in Paris we were all determined to have a really good time. I was nineteen and a half and my sister not quite twenty one. The drive down was wonderful as we went both over and under various Alps, attended a concert at La Scala in Milan and swooned at just about everything we saw in Florence. But my sister and I could see the journey was starting to take its toll on mum. She had seriously advanced emphysema and used an inhaler most of the day. As the weather became hotter and the air less pleasant she began to find walking any distance at all very difficult. Indeed she had to miss the meal we had out on the first night in Rome with dad’s counter part there an American journalist who had known him for several years in London. He was a Catholic and told us that he had been keeping a really super surprise up his sleeve for us all. He turned to dad during the meal and said,

“Paul, you’ll all love this. Did you know that in two days it is the fiftieth anniversary of the overseas press club in the Vatican and a very select number of correspondents have been invited to meet Pope John and have an informal audience with him that evening? They desperately wanted a Catholic family to be part of this and I told the Bishop organising the audience that you, as an Australian journalist of note, your two English Catholic children and your well known Scottish Catholic wife were all in town and thanks to your job could represent the international media family. What do you think?”

In all honesty I thought he was joking. He knew how I would react and was quite right. We all said yes but asked if we could not tell anyone about mum because there was no way she would want to miss what would be one of the greatest days of her life. We were right. She said she would go if it killed her and the three of us genuinely feared that it could.  As the time to leave the hotel got nearer mum was getting worse, She donned a black evening coat and black lace veil saying she could hide her inhaler up her sleeve and not be seen as she used it. My sister also wore a black head scarf but refused to cover her face, not that anyone asked her to. Dad just wore a grey suit. Then came the real penance of the night.

Our taxi dropped us by the papal gate entrance to the Vatican palace just by the colonnade, but we were told we had to walk up to the ante room where the Holy Father was receiving the foreign press. Mum had got ready in extremely quick time and we were only concerned in helping her manage the stairs to the small hall and room where we were invited to wait for Pope John to arrive. How mum made it I will never know, but she did. Then came the high point of the evening, indeed for me, of my life.

A jovial, smiling octogenarian literally beamed his way into the room and the fifty or so papal guests were astounded at the informality and good fun that pervaded the whole forty five minutes we were with Pope John. But just as he was scheduled to leave the Holy Father cast all four of us into a state of almost disbelieving happiness. He did the most wonderful thing. Speaking in fluent French he asked if he could meet Paul, Sarah, Michele and Anton the Catholic family from all round the world who had come to see him. He approached us and in a few brief words told us all how glad he was to meet us. HE was glad to meet US! If he only knew. As he blessed us and let us kiss his ring I cast a glance at mum, the tears streaming down her face, and realised she would have climbed Mount Everest to go through that moment in her life.

Then came a lovely scene of real humour. The apostolic delegate to the media asked if any of us needed the lifts as the stairs often proved too much for elderly or sick people. Mum turned to dad and my sister and me and said, “It may have half killed me but I’m glad I walked. It was worth it just to be able to say that I had met a Saint in my pyjamas. I was so ill I didn’t have time to dress tonight, that’s all I’m wearing under this coat.”

Dad and Michele laughed and she said, “Mum you mean the Pope, not a saint.” All mum replied was,

“I know what I said.” And the proof that she did is that on the 27th of April last year, on the 108th anniversary of mum’s birth, Pope Francis Canonized Pope John XXIII, officially raising him to the highest dignity possible for a human being to attain. I will never know how mum knew!

Anton Wills-Eve

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