Hidden helpers: Vatican ushers bring tots, disabled closer to pope
Published: April 24, 2012
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The cameras are trained on the cute baby being foisted up to the pope for a kiss and papal blessing, not on the dapper gentleman trying to handle the precious, often squirming, load with care. Vatican ushers attend every weekly general audience, helping visitors with special needs and picking out the cutest babies in the crowd for the photo op of a lifetime. And they welcome dignitaries and heads of state visiting the pope with all the pomp and circumstance suited for their stature as "gentlemen in waiting." These laymen, called "sediari" or chair-bearers, did just that for centuries: carried the pope on an elevated chair high above the crowds so everyone could catch a glimpse of the pontiff. But Blessed John Paul II discontinued the practice when he was elected in 1978, preferring to walk and be close to the people. The "sediari" stayed on, but their role no longer included carrying the pope on their shoulders -- until Blessed John Paul's death more than 26 years later. When he died, Blessed John Paul's body had to be carried by 12 papal gentlemen on a red velvet stretcher in a solemn procession from the Apostolic Palace to St. Peter's Basilica. Because so many of the papal ushers were young, only a few older veterans knew how to carry a pope either on the portable chair or the stretcher. All ushers' eyes and ears were on Massimo Sansolini, who served four popes after he became a "sediario" in 1964. He spelled out the correct procedure for smoothly and decorously lifting and carrying the papal platform so that it would stay as horizontal and secure as possible while the men navigated corridors and numerous marble staircases.
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