I KNOW, I know, so many things going on, but perhaps I could just tell you that on the Feast of Corpus Christi, I almost literally bumped into the Pope. In Rome for a few days, that Thursday afternoon I decided, by chance, to visit the cathedral of St John Lateran, Omnium Urbis et Orbis Ecclesiarum Mater et Caput, to give it its grand title, a title which, believe you me, it deserves.
The present vast basilica was built over the ruins of other basilicas, the first of which was constructed by the Emperor Constantine in the fourth century. I wish I could describe the glories of the inside, but I never actually made it through its ancient bronze doors, since I found them firmly shut.
I was cross, but since I had got all the way there, I decided to walk round the outside. The east front, with its two-storeyed portico surmounted by 16 colossal statues of Christ and the Apostles, looks like a film set. But the only thing I saw was a man with a vacuum cleaner.
Now vacuum cleaners mean carpets. Carpets mean important people. There were barriers, too, through which I slid, along with two grey-veiled German nuns, one almost immovably fat, the other stick thin, both clutching campstools. They growled at me like a couple of rottweilers as I sat down in the sun as near to the steps as I could get. Eventually the fat one leaned over. "Please," she said, in tones reeking of disapproval, "sit nicely. Don't you know the Pope's coming?"
And indeed he was. For the next three hours I waited, a tiny piece in a vast jigsaw which slowly put itself together. Above the steps, a golden altar was set up and a carpet rolled out - the vacuum cleaner man set to work at once - and people began to trickle, then pour into the square: monks and nuns of every age and nationality in habits of every hue; plump Italian matrons, all wrinkles and deep black; families; students; the pious; the curious and endless people suffering from nameless infirmities. All made a bee-line for the same spot - my spot - for an uninterrupted view of Pope Benedict XVI.
Thank goodness for Sister Immovably Fat. Seeing that I was in danger of being squeezed to a pancake between a podgy teenager in a football strip and a solid mamma with a face like a wild boar, she barked loudly. Signora Wild Boar barked back, but the rottweiler barked loudest.
At the altar, all was chaos. An archbishop appeared, clearly trying to instruct a gaggle of confused altar servers on papal etiquette. An organ gave a few blasts, then choked. The white papal chair was moved hither and thither. And all the while, wave upon wave of priests, all in black cassocks and carrying neatly pressed surplices over their arms, materialised as if from nowhere. You couldn't believe how many. The crowd swelled and swelled. Now children in cheap Daz-white first communion dresses, papal knights in swirling cloaks or tabards, Catholic dignitaries and red-sashed cardinals began to jostle for position on serried rows of chairs.
Lots of pieces of the jigsaw got into the wrong place. Nuns got a rosary going, to which people bellowed their responses while talking on their mobiles. The police chewed gum, making no attempt to impose order or to rescue unwitting passers-by swept into the throng, never to escape. I couldn't help remarking to myself, with the cynicism of the detached observer, that all this bedlam and plastic piety was not at all British.
Then, quietly, the door of St John Lateran opened and something extraordinary happened. As the tops of the halberds carried by the Swiss Guard swam into view, every bit of cynicism and detachment deserted me. I found myself breathless.
The halberds moved forwards and, suddenly, the Pope was before us. He himself made nothing of his entry, but, as one, we swayed towards him. Tears streamed down the cheeks of the rottweiler nun, and, to my enormous surprise, down my own. Here was the living successor of St Peter, the guardian of the spirit at the heart of all Rome's gilded worldly treasures. Here was the Holy Father. When people clapped, I willingly joined in.
Astounded at my reaction, I expected it to pass. It did not. During the entire lengthy mass, with its mainly commonplace liturgy and dodgy singing, I remained moved in a way I did not find at all comfortable. I wanted my detachment back, but I couldn't find it.
And it did not end there. As it was Corpus Christi, when mass was over, the Pope, holding aloft the monstrance containing the blessed sacrament, came slowly down the steps to get into an open-topped Popemobile, a prie-dieu protected by a golden canopy settled on its flat-back. He was very close and looked very serious.
THEN Signora Wild Boar called out his name - "Benedetto!" - and as he turned to acknowledge us, his face lightened and he smiled a smile of delighted sweetness before raising his arm to indicate that the blessed sacrament was more worthy of our attention. If Signora Wild Boar had not been quite so bristly, I'd have kissed her.
By now it was almost dark, and candles collared with variously coloured tissue paper were handed out. We passed the light, one to another, and began to process slowly behind the Pope, away from St John Lateran, towards the equally grand Santa Maria Maggiore. In the windows of the houses along the street, hundreds of candles had been lit to reflect our own, and small religious banners were draped for display. Men and women coming home from work knelt as the Popemobile passed. Children were held up.
I glanced behind me as I walked. With our candles raised, we looked like a great tide of flickering flowers, as if a luminous, murmuring garden was on the move. At Santa Maria Maggiore, we bowed our heads and were blessed. Then, just as quietly as he had arrived, the Pope was gone.
As I made my way home, gallantly offered a scarce taxi by three tipsy Irishmen, I tried to reflect on what this experience actually meant. Was it, for me and the tens of thousands of others, a manifestation of genuine Catholic spirituality? Were we just star-struck by the place and the spectacle? None of my emotions seemed remotely intellectually coherent. Yet I know that as I sang the Salve Regina under that warm Roman sky, with Signora Wild Boar singing wildly out of tune next door, I was filled with a faith as strong as the childish faith of those wide-eyed first communicants, but much deeper, as if all those roots put down in my childhood had suddenly been watered. You may find this laughable. You may even find it disturbing. All I can say is that I found it utterly refreshing.
And this feeling of refreshment seems to have remained. I did many things in Rome and saw many sights. But even though I visited countless magnificent churches, an amphitheatre or two and several impossibly fashionable shops, the thing that remains sharpest is my chance encounter with an elderly man sporting bright white hair and the fisherman's ring. Pope Benedict XVI may not be blessed with the charisma of his predecessor, but my goodness, he still packs an Almighty punch.