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By William Wan
What do you get for a man who already possesses leadership over one-sixth of the world’s population not to mention the highest earthly authority in the church?
“Someone there remembered us from the Pope’s last visit,” DiCocco said in a phone interview today. He and his shop had design and built a chair used by the pope during his meeting with U.S. bishops in Washington last year.
For five days, DiCocco and the state department officials went back and forth, trying to strike the right balance of history, significance and sentiment. A lot was at stake. Not just American-Vatican relations (the perfect gift just might be the thing to spark a warm discussion), but also in the balance was Obama’s reputation as a decent gift giver (re: critics’ howls when Obama gave Queen Elizabeth that iPod).
At first, DiCocco suggested an antique chalice his family had in their shop that could be traced back to the 1920s — a parish priest style gold-plated cup with a highly engraved base. Written around the mouth of the chalice were the words, “Sanctus, Sanctus, Santus,” meaning “holy, holy, holy.”
The cup had history and character but they kept looking.
DiCocco reached out to friends and contacts in the American Catholic community. Some of them at the Redemptorist order mentioned a sacred relic from the saint, John Neumann, in their possession.
The Redemptorists, an order of Catholic priests and brothers that originated in 1732 at Naples, traced their roots in the U.S. to 1842, when Neumann became the first Redemptorist to profess vows in America. Neumann, helped build up the U.S. Catholic school and parish system and ministered especially to German immigrants in Baltimore and Pittsburgh.
The Redemptorist order had a stole that had been draped on top of his remains at a Philadelphia shrine to Neumann, who was declared a saint in 1977. The stole, a long scarf-like garment that is worn around a priest’s neck, had lain with Neumann’s body for 18 years until it was removed in 2007.
When DiCocco suggested the stole to the state department, “it was just kind of a no-brainer,” he said. “It was just the right touch of American Catholic history and relevance. I mean, here was this saint, an immigrant who came to America and did so much beautiful work.”
Not trusting the stole to others, DiCocco personally picked it up, drove it to Washington and hand-delivered it last week to government officials.
The White House has declined to confirm the gift or discuss it before the tomorrow’s meeting between Obama and Benedict. The Redemptorist order, however, said in a statement today that it was “a delight” to be able to give something to the Holy Father.
“We’re giving the gift because it was asked for by our government to be given to the pope, and it’s an honor,” said Al Bradley, an official with the order.
As for DiCocco and his family, he said they’re ecstatic to have been able to serve their country and their pope, not just once with the chair last year, but now twice.
“We’re humbled by it all,” he said. “And just know there’s going to be a piece of American history in the Vatican – not just American, but Philadelphia history – it’s just a great feeling.”