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  • John Thavis

Cruising the Mediterranean, landing in Rome

Your blogger has been missing in action lately, but I have a good excuse. I’ve been lecturing on board the Prairie Home Companion 2013 Cruise from Barcelona to Venice, speaking daily about the Vatican, the new pope, life in Rome and other Italian topics on which I’m the designated house expert. (I know, it’s a tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it.)

I’d never been on a cruise ship before, and I have to say this one was a winner. Garrison Keillor, who did two shows every evening in the main showroom, loaded the boat with so much entertainment that it was hard to know where to turn. Richard Dworsky led the Guy’s All-Star Shoe Band. Guitarists Pat Donohue and Dean Magraw, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, the great piano player and clarinetist Butch Thompson, singer Heather Masse and another singer, Hilary Thavis – yes, our daughter – were just some of the folks on board. So was Fred Newman, a genuinely funny guy who commands an arsenal of sound effects.

In one of the most hilarious acts, Sue Scott and Tim Russell staged an “interview” with retired Pope Benedict by an Italian talk show hostess. The idea that a retired pope could do the talk show circuit is not, of course, impossible, but the portrayal of Benedict subjecting himself to inane celebrity treatment hit my funnybone.

One of our cruise stops was Civitavecchia, the port of Rome, and I shepherded a small group to a Sunday papal blessing. I have to say I’m used to following the pope on a TV monitor as an accredited journalist in the press room. But on this Sunday my press badge was replaced by a cruise excursion sticker. I stood in St. Peter’s Square with about 50,000 others, watching as a tiny figure in white appeared at the window of an apartment complex he has chosen not to inhabit. Listening to Pope Francis talk, one can easily understand his popular appeal. The gate may be narrow, he said, but everyone is called to salvation, especially sinners. The road to salvation is not supposed to be a torture chamber. As I told cruise passengers who didn’t speak Italian, his basic message seemed to be: Live the just life, but don’t beat up on yourselves when you fall short. The APHC passengers seemed fascinated by Pope Francis, which probably explains why my “Vatican Decoded” talk was standing-room-only and had to be repeated twice during the cruise.

We disembarked in Venice and now I’m in Rome for a couple of weeks, to present the Italian edition of my book, The Vatican Diaries, and to lay the groundwork for my next project. I’m hoping to bump into the pope somewhere along the way.

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