An audience with the Pope

From Runanga to Rome is a bloody long way!

Especially when you’re a wet-behind-the-ears, twenty-four-year-old priest about to embark on three more years of theology studies.

From the moment I flew over the beach before landing jet lagged at Leonardo da Vinci Airport, I felt like a fish out of water. Just as I had in the preceding five and a half years of seminary life and study in New Zealand.

I never set out to become a priest. But in many ways, it was always preordained I would eventually become ordained. You see, I was the second son in a line of five boys, growing up in a Catholic mining family of Irish descent.

it was always preordained I would eventually become ordained

My eldest brother Patrick was destined to become a lawyer or a doctor; he chose law.

Brian, the middle brother, was earmarked for the NZ Police.

Kevin was a teacher. He was followed by Breandan. Breandan regularly fell afoul of Brian, then had to use Paddy’s services to get off charges of drunk and disorderly, petty theft, or affray. That was until, youthful exuberance spent, Breandan followed Dad into the mine.

My sisters Colleen and Rosaline—before becoming mothers—studied dental nursing and teaching. Oonagh joined the Sisters of Mercy Convent in Christchurch, and Shelagh worked bars; my parents never suspecting she was lesbian.

So here I was, Terrence (Terry) Seamus Ian O’Guire, a coaster, living and studying in the heart of Catholicism: Vatican City, Rome.

My long journey toward Rome started in my last year of secondary school.

“Have you ever considered a career in Christ?” the stern humourless school rector asked me during the sixth form retreat.

“No Father,” I answered, “I want to be a professional musician.”

Father Scanlon with his long dreary face, soft grey complexion, and altar wine-stained nose, looked over his diminutive spectacles and smiled. It was a smile without warmth or affection.

“It’s great to have dreams, Terry, but a musician’s life is no life for a young man of your talents. For every ten thousand young men wanting to become a musician; a Beatle, or an Elvis; only one will ever make it—and that’s if they’re lucky! Most will struggle and end up doing some meaningless job for the rest of their days.

“Do you really want that?

“Now, I’ve spoken with your mother and father; both are keen for you to take up the cassock. And, after your misadventure with Miss Rita Moffatt earlier this year, some religious study and a bit of piety will do you no harm. After all, I’m sure you do not want to disappoint your parents, your parish, and your school again, do you?

“And besides, if you want to be a musician, the Church can offer you the world, all without the need to worry about lodging and food. You have talent, Terry; it would be a sin to waste it on the fickleness of rock music and unfulfilled dreams. Offer it to the Church instead, give yourself to a life with Christ, and you will be well-rewarded both in this life and the next.”

Two weeks later, NZR (New Zealand Railways), the Catholic Church, and my parents railroaded me into my future. I caught a lonely red railcar to Lyttleton, embarked on the Rangatira, sailed to Wellington, then caught a train to Hastings. My ultimate destination—the Society of Mary Seminary in Napier. I was set to become a Marist.

Rita Moffatt . . . Rita. . . . Rita and I were mates from way back. We’d kicked around together for as long as I could remember. Raven hair with eyes the colour of a Karamea nikau, mana stirred with the attitude of a brushtail possum, there was no way you could describe Rita as common! With a tongue as sharp as a toetoe leaf, her serrated edges could cut you up, leave you bloodied and sore. And, that was if she liked you! If she liked you, she’d give you a hard time. If she didn’t, well, you’d work it out pretty quick!

grayscale photography of woman with two hands on her face
Raven hair with eyes the colour of a Karamea nikau, mana stirred with the attitude of a brushtail possum

As a young fella, I used to kick my Ka Mate, (the name I gave my rugby ball) over our back fence into her section, just so I could see her.

“Your shorts are so baggy,” she used to laugh, “I can see your daks when you climb over the fence. Don’t get your nuts caught, you might need them one day!”

“Well . . . ,” I would answer, fumbling for my words, “my mum says that one of these days, your mouth is going to get you into trouble.”

But it wasn’t her mouth that got her into trouble, it was me and my nuts.

In the summer of 1972 and 1973, Rita, her two cousins Ted and John, and I formed a band—The Dilettantes. We were tight, and I only occasionally lost time. I played lead, Ted bass, with John on the drums. Rita played keyboard and was our vocalist, and man what a vocalist she was! But it wasn’t just her voice that brought the punters in. It was also her on-trend geometric hairstyle, her penchant for short black shift dresses and knee-high leather boots, generating gasps from the older women, adoring jealous stares from the younger ones, and bawdy lustful grins from all the men. Grizzly older guys, miners, loggers, and farmers would stand at the back of the halls or pubs, hands-on-hips, wearing funny looks on their faces. Perhaps remembering that female flesh need not be lumpy dumpy and Sunday comfortable like their wives’ overworked scones.

jumping woman
And when she danced, the world caught fire, the dance floor sizzled

And when she danced, the world caught fire, the dance floor sizzled, and sweat poured off anyone even attempting to keep up with her. From the Hollies to the Beatles, from Stevie Wonder to David Bowie, we played ‘em all. When watching Rita move, it was so easy to lose time and I remember our cover of Derek and the Dominos’ “Little Wing” once bringing critical acclaim from a journo from the Christchurch Press, who happened to be staying one night at the Hari Hari pub. He reported that the song kept him awake all night!

From Haast to Karamea and everywhere in between, we played every pub, every Working Men’s Club and church hall. All of us travelling in style in the Runanga Four Square delivery van, which Ted was allowed to use on the weekends. In the twelve weeks of the school holidays, I reckon we must have travelled over two thousand miles that summer and played at least twenty-five gigs. Halcyon days, which all too soon came to an end with the late January school bell’s peeving call.

“You’ve knocked me up, Terry,” Rita told me one day six weeks after we returned to our schools. “I’m up the duff.”

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” I cursed. “I’m so sorry, I knew we shouldn’t have.”

“But we did,” she spat, “so shut up, you dick. I told you those balls of yours might come in handy one day.”

“What are we going to do?” I asked nervously.

“It’s already done, Terry. Tomorrow I’m catching the rail car over the hill to Christchurch. I’m being sent to live with my uncle and aunty. I’ve been enrolled in the Secretarial College, and then when the baby comes, it will be adopted out. Afterwards, I will have to find a job.”

red shed beside train rails

Without a goodbye, she turned and walked away. 

It was many years before I saw her again. All I could remember during those years in between was that resigned look of hopelessness on her once carefree face. Me, circumstance, our parents, and the church, obliterating and extinguishing the koniaphostic light she had radiated. A light that pulsed so brightly; but tragically, oh so briefly.

I sat by the edge of the rocky green pool, staring at the Fountain of the Eagle. Of all the fountains in the Vatican Gardens, this one was my favourite. Its size, its breadth and sound resonating deeply within me, bringing back memories of Westcoast Waterfalls, of rain, and Rita. It was September 1978, and Rome had just experienced a wonderfully long and hot summer. The Vatican and the Church were all abuzz, as a new Pope had been elected—Pope John Paul I. For most, Rome was the place to be; for me, it was torture.

It was 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday, I had thirty minutes before I needed to attend prayers. I sat daydreaming, my acoustic guitar resting between my legs. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t see a man in white flanked by two huge Swiss Guards approach.

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The man in white stopped in front of me.

“May I sit with you, my son?”

I looked up and gulped. “Your Holiness, yes of course.”

“You play?” John Paul asked, nodding at my guitar.

“Yes, Your Holiness.”

“Where are you from, young man?” the Pope asked, smiling.

“New Zealand, Your Holiness.”

John Paul continued to smile. “I see, a Marist, I presume.”

I smiled back and nodded.

“Well play for me, perhaps something from New Zealand.”

Nervously I picked up my guitar, hoping I could remember all the chords to “Pokarekare Ana.”

I played the best I could, for my private audience with the Pope! I closed my eyes, attempting to sing my best vocals. As I finished, the Pope touched my shoulder, a beaming grin lighting his eyes. It was the smile that could win a million hearts, and subsequently did. 

“You play very well, my son, and you sang so beautifully. You have real talent. Please tell me what it means?”

I played it again, this time singing in English.

They are agitated.

The waters of Waiapu,

but when you cross over girl

they will be calm.

Oh girl

return to me,

I could die

of love for you.

I have written my letter

I have sent my ring,

so that your people can see

that I am troubled.

Oh girl

return to me,

I could die

of love for you.

My love will never

be dried by the sun,

It will be forever moistened.

by my tears.

Oh girl

return to me,

I could die

of love for you.

This time the Pope clapped loudly. “Bellissima,” he exclaimed.

The handsome twin Swiss Guards standing by, hands on swords, started to grin.

“Come on,” the Pope encouraged them, “join in!”

The guards then gave me a rousing round of applause.      

“I do not want to withhold you from your prayers my son, but tell me who is your Patron Saint?”

“St Anthony of Padua,” I answered. 

St Anthony of Padua

“I knew it—I knew it,” he laughed, his eyes twinkling, his smile infectious. “I knew you were playing and singing for something lost. So, as you have played for me, let me pray for you.” 

He bowed his head; I followed his lead. 

“O blessed St Anthony, the grace of God has made you a powerful advocate in all our needs and the patron for the restoring of things lost or stolen. I turn to you today with childlike love and deep confidence. You have helped countless children of God find the things they have lost, material things, and, more importantly, the things of the spirit: faith, hope, and love. I come to you with confidence; help me in my present need. I recommend what I have lost to your care, in the hope that God will restore it to me if it is His Holy Will.”

“My son,” he said, as he got up to leave. “Jesus wants you to be happy, he wants you to live your life with all your talents, in the way you choose to live it. He has no interest in making you sad or unhappy. And, if he feels that way—then who am I to argue with him? Go home, son, find what it is that you have lost. Then, when you have found it, make your choice. The Church will be here waiting.

“Bless you, my young New Zealand friend, you have entertained me wonderfully well this morning. Go in love and go in peace.” 

Over the coming days and weeks, I reflected on what I had lost. Rita…Rita, it always came back to Rita. 

Back in New Zealand, I found her easily enough. But when I did, she was already married and had two young children, Lorraine and Beverley. It took another fifteen years before she was free; her husband wanting a divorce after having an affair with his young secretary. During all those years waiting, I taught music at Burnside High School. 

Two years after her divorce, Rita and I married. Lorraine and Beverley graciously accepted and welcomed me into their loving family. Rita and I were happy and managed to have another child together, Colin. Colin was born with Down’s syndrome; due to our advanced age, we presumed. He is a lovely lump of a lad and still lives with me today. He misses his mum terribly, as do I. 

Two years ago, we received a letter from a middle-aged man called Warwick Stephens. He was the son we never knew, the baby that was ripped from Rita’s arms by the times and circumstance. Rita and I enjoyed getting to know Warwick in the twelve months she had left. Last year, just after Easter, she passed from cancer which had been stalking and haunting her over the previous three years. Warwick and I still meet occasionally, catch up for a coffee, shoot the breeze. He is a good man and has his own family.

I never went back to the Church. The doors were permanently closed for an ex-Seminarian who married a divorcee. I fondly remember my brief interaction with John Paul 1 and can’t help wondering whether he was actually praying for himself, the Church, or for me. I also worked out I’d been wrong all along, I hadn’t lost Rita, I’d simply lost time again. 

The doors were permanently closed for an ex-Seminarian who married a divorcee.

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