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October 27, 2008
The heavy cream-colored card on which the invitation was printed was a good indicator of what the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Florence would be like. I got off to a bit of a late start on my walk there, and found myself hurrying along the narrow sidewalks, having occasionally to step into the street to pass more leisurely sightseers. I was not the only one in a hurry: nuns and monks in the habits of their various orders walked briskly toward the Duomo in pairs. Priests and deacons with their vestments slung over their arms, groups of young people from parish churches, nursing sisters shepherding small parties of physically disabled people in wheelchairs, mentally disabled people whom they led by the hand, and thousands of ordinary Florentines all streamed toward the great cathedral doors.

My entry was not through those doors, but through a smaller entrance on the side, staffed by tables of greeters with seating charts and lists of names, guarded by the carabinieri, gorgeously arrayed in dress uniform and plumed helmet. They were expecting me, it seemed: an elegant program was pressed into my hand -- the new archbishop had chosen a few of Fra Angelico's frescoes of the life of Christ for the monastery of San Marco to adorn the program's cover and some of its interior pages. I was seated with the "other" clergy -- Orthodox, Baptist, Jewish, and the Anglican Archbishop of Winchester, Florence's twin city -- safely penned behind a phalanx of deacons, who in their turn sat behind an even larger contingent of priests.

I hadn't wanted to go. Sunday is a long and exhausting day, and this one had already been a little more so than usual. It included the young adults' "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" lunch, which probably involved me a little more than it should have, and we had Tosca tickets for the evening -- I am a famously poor steward of my own activity and energy. Maybe I could just not go to the Archbishop's enthronement. Who would miss me? There would be thousands of people there.

Duty prevailed. And once inside the cathedral, the beauty took over: the banners, the vestments, the trumpets, the hundreds of candles. The duomo itself: the spectacular ceiling of its dome, showing us every detail of the Last Judgment; the marble altar banked with yellow flowers, the silver busts of Florentine archbishops, hatted with real mitres matching the ones worn by their outgoing and incoming living counterparts. The duomo is huge, and not kind to the spoken word. Its sound system makes things actively worse. I have to listen hard to comprehend Italian anyway; it was not long before I lapsed into contemplation of the eternal lives of the saved and the damned high above my head.

Even more than the beauty and majesty of it all, the happiness of the event charmed me. The people were happy to be there, happy to be Florentine, happy to be Catholic, happy and proud of the nuns and monks and priests and deacons, waving their handkerchiefs in the air and bursting into applause when their own bishop or priest walked by in the procession. Life is as hard here in Florence as it is everywhere else; it is the most expensive city in Italy in which to live, in the best of times, and everyone here is nervous about the frightening economic news. Government services are being slashed. The schools are on strike.

But a handsome and vigorous new archbishop has arrived. He was kissing each of his suffragan bishops on both cheeks, bending down to kiss children and old people in wheelchairs. He was singing the ancient tunes in a modern language, one of a long line of leaders who have sat in his chair. There would be plenty of trouble to go around tomorrow. Tonight was a time for time to stand still.

We have daylight savings time now in Italy. I don't know when it starts in New York; maybe they have it now, too. Maybe they, too are reminded again what evening is, as I was when we all emerged from the brightness of the cathedral into the dark Florentine night and started for home..
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