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February 28, 2016, Sunday – One Less Light in the Vatican

One Less Light in the Vatican

And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

—The poem God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-89)


A Sadness in Things

There is a sadness in things, in this world where all things pass away.

The sadness brings heart-sorrow, and such sorrow can wring tears from our eyes, when we stand powerless before something we cannot change, and wish were otherwise. We shed such tears especially when someone we knew well, with whom we shared special moments, moments of hope, moments of fear, is suddenly, unexpectedly, no more with us.

And so I write this “in memoriam” – for a memory.

For a memory of a young woman named Miriam.

A woman of extraordinary beauty and grace, who filled the space around her with a special light.

She was one of the several receptionists of the Domus Santa Marta, the Vatican residence where Pope Francis has lived since his election three years ago. She worked there also for several years before the Pope arrived.

For this reason, Miriam has been described in the press as “the Pope’s receptionist.” Some press reports have said that Miriam personally handed the Pope his letters and messages. That is not true. The messages are handed to the Pope by his secretarial staff. But she did greet him each day, and after dinner, when she was on the desk, Francis would greet her and wish her good night as he went up to his room. In this sense, she was part of “the Pope’s family,” of those whom he sees and greets at the beginning and end of each day.

Here is a photo of Miriam at her desk in the Domus Santa Marta from some time ago.


Miriam Woldu, who died at the age of 34 about 20 days ago, and whose funeral was yesterday in Rome in St. Stephen’s Church, the Ethiopian pilgrims’ church inside the Vatican, just at the back of St. Peter’s Basilica, at the beginning of the Vatican gardens. Miriam was a receptionist in the Domus Santa Marta, the house of the Pope. The Pope knew her, and mourned her death. He attended her funeral, and he prayed alone by her coffin for about 20 minutes. Photo copyright by Inside the Vatican magazine. No reproduction is permitted without permission.

For those guests of the Holy See who stay in the Domus Santa Marta for a day, or three, or five – members of various Vatican commissions who travel to Rome for annual meetings, or pilgrims on pilgrimage – Miriam was an unfailing light, a ready resource, a trusted friend.

Though of Eritrean descent – her parents were immigrants – she had lived all her life in Italy, and was Italian. Her Italian was perfect, but she also spoke English beautifully, even eloquently.

Miriam’s grace affected even Pope Francis.

Of all the receptionists in the Domus Santa Marta, she had the sunniest disposition. Francis nodded and smiled to her each day when she was on duty, for the past three years. He called her “the Queen of the house.” He liked her friendliness and smile.

I too knew Miriam. To me, she was a kind and good friend. She often urged me not to be “so serious,” and not to worry so much about things. “The weight of the world is not for our shoulders, Robert,” she told me.

She was an honest person. She could be blunt in her judgments, discerning right from wrong, good from evil, with unerring accuracy.

She lived for many years at home with her parents. Some time ago, she was engaged to be married. She said she was “so happy” at the prospect of marriage and of having a family of her own.

She was married in a Catholic Mass, and a Vatican monsignor officiated at the wedding.

Here is a photo of the exchange of rings at her wedding.


A photo from the wedding of the Pope’s receptionist, Miriam Woldu. The crucifix on the wall behind Miriam’s head is lit with a bright shining light. Photo copyright by Inside the Vatican Magazine. No reproduction is permitted without permission.

Newly married, she got pregnant, and was overjoyed. But then she lost that baby during the first months of pregnancy, and she was very sad.

After that, for various reasons which must remain in the privacy of their intimacy, she and her husband separated.

She began to live alone in an apartment not far from the Vatican.

Her story echoes that of so many in our world. She had her share of loneliness, of solitary struggle to work, pay the rent, shop, cook, live life day by day.

In recent months she suffered stomach pains, which she sometimes complained of. She also suffered from diabetes, according to press reports, although she never mentioned that to me.

She was still working in the Domus in December, and I saw her then, but during January began to ask for days of sick leave, and in early February, she asked for several days off in a row.

That was about three weeks ago.

On about February 10 – the exact day and time of her death is uncertain – she passed from this world.

For several days, she lay, fully clothed, lifeless in her bed in her apartment.

She was alone. The doors, as investigators later determined, were locked from the inside. There was no sign of foul play, of any intruder or of anyone who had caused her harm.

She was not found until her brother, Simon, trying unsuccessfully to reach her by telephone, realized that she had not answered her phone for too long. He contacted authorities, who went to the apartment, found the door locked, and forced it open, to find her already dead for several days.

The news of her death was made public in an article in the Rome daily Il Messaggero last Sunday, February 21.

All who knew Miriam were shocked and saddened by the sudden news of her death. Though it was known that she was feeling unwell, it was not suspected that she had a life-threatening condition.

A full investigation of her death has now determined that she died from a diabetes-induced coma, from which she did not awaken.

It was also discovered, in a final, even more sorrowful detail in this sad story, that she was seven months pregnant with a little girl, who died in her womb. The two were buried together yesterday.

The funeral Mass took place yesterday, Saturday, February 27, in St. Stephen’s Church, the church of the Ethiopian pilgrims inside Vatican City, just behind St. Peter’s Basilica, and, appropriately, just at the beginning of the peaceful Vatican gardens.

On the eve of the funeral Mass, Monsignor Battista Ricca, the director of the Domus Santa Marta and so Miriam’s direct superior, prayed a rosary together with Miriam’s mother, who was disconsolate. As Miriam’s coffin was carried out of the church after the funeral, her mother, weeping profusely, cried out loud, “Don’t leave me, Miriam!”

Pope Francis attended the funeral, and he spent 20 minutes in solitary prayer beside her coffin, showing clearly his profound grief at her death.


St.Stephen’s Church, at the edge of the Vatican gardens in the center of Vatican City, behind St. Peter’s Basilica. This is where Miriam’s funeral Mass was celebrated yesterday. It is only about 150 yards from the Domus Santa Marta

Looking back, it seems clear that Miriam’s illness complicated her pregnancy. This raises the question of whether she was treated with the care she deserved.

Ironically, Pope Francis at the very time news of Miriam’s death was becoming public, on February 22, delivered a homily to the members of the Roman Curia in which he said that they must be careful never to neglect or mistreat those they come into contact with.

The occasion was the Jubilee Year of Mercy Mass for the Roman Curia.

“In our workplaces too may we feel, cultivate and practice a strong pastoral sense, especially towards the people we encounter every day,” Francis said. “May no-one feel neglected or mistreated, but may everyone be able to experience, especially here, the loving care of the Good Shepherd.”

Miriam’s light has been extinguished now, in this world.

Her sickness was evidently not diagnosed and treated in the best way, and she passed away, quietly. She left us without saying goodbye.

And so we would like to say to Miriam, thank you for the goodness and light that you shone with during your brief life.

May your soul find peace in the Lord. May eternal light shine upon you, unto ages of ages. Amen.

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What is the glory of God?

“The glory of God is man alive; but the life of man is the vision of God.” —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, in the territory of France, in his great work Against All Heresies, written c. 180 A.D.

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