I learned about the following story during my last class on my last weekend for this academic year.
In the mid-19th century the whole of Europe was in turmoil. Many of the people began to clamor for representative self-governments. This was true in Italy as well and Pope Pius IX was feeling the tension. In Italian he was known as Pio Nono. He fled Rome to Gaeta, Italy where he was protected by the King of Sicily.
The USS Constitution, “Old Ironsides,” was anchored in the bay just outside Gaeta. Captain Gwinn of the Constitution had specifically stopped here to call on Pio Nono. The ship was part of a naval squadron sent to protect American shipping interests in the Mediterranean Sea amidst the political uncertainty. The pope was welcomed aboard the USS Constitution along with the King of Sicily. They were both given the full diplomatic welcome as heads of state. Sailors were at full attention and a twenty-one gun salute was initiated. The print “Ship of State” by Tom Freeman shows the smoke of the powder and the sailors standing atop the yardarms. The Pope blessed all the Catholic sailors and gave rosaries to anyone who wanted one. As a warship, the USS Constitution is considered American soil, so this was the first “official” visit of a Pope to the United States.
Pope Pius IX eventually returned to Rome and, as the longest tenured pope ever, would live to see a united Italy. Captain Gwinn of the USS Constitution faced discipline for having the Pope and King visit because his duty was to maintain strict neutrality in the region. He died before having to face any inquiry.
Now, I didn’t just pack it in for the year and daydream out the window. The temptation for everyone in school is to yearn for the freedom that June brings, but don’t miss out on the opportunities May has to offer. There is much to be done and much to be learned. Looking to the future too often has us miss the gift of the present.
I believe Captain Gwinn had a sense of this as well. He saw an opportunity that he knew was unlikely to reoccur and invited Pope Pius aboard the ship. He risked some discipline for an incredible opportunity, not knowing how precious little time he had left. He heard opportunity knocking… and he answered. May we not let this May pass us by.
Local columnist Jim Tokarsky is the principal of Norwalk Catholic middle school and St. Paul High School.