VATICAN CITY — Each December, hordes of determined pilgrims approach the bronze gate leading to the papal apartments hoping to deliver a Christmas present to Pope John Paul II.
They don't get past the Swiss Guards.
But their gifts--ranging from hand-knitted white socks (the Pope always wears white socks) and Polish Christmas cakes to a ski jacket or the carcass of a freshly killed wild boar--are quickly slipped behind the Vatican walls.
Other presents, wrapped in brightly covered paper and tied with bows, pile in during the Pope's weekly general audiences. Even more are mailed to the papal palace from all over the world.
Children send finger paintings. Elderly ladies favor traditional Christmas cakes or cookies. Farmers deliver produce or a special bottle of homemade wine, fishermen a mess of freshly caught fish.
The U.S. 6th Fleet, headquartered in Naples, once presented John Paul with the fleet's gold-lettered "gimme cap," one well-connected Vatican source said. Italian soccer clubs send him team T-shirts. Sports enthusiasts send bicycles and skis.
The live animals that occasionally arrive--a frisky lamb, a brace of live doves--are sent immediately to the Vatican farm at the Pope's summer residence in Castel Gandolfo, south of Rome.
Children often send carefully printed letters with their presents. "They usually start off, 'Dear Holy Father, here is something for your Christmas,' " a Vatican spokesman said.
Worries About Future
Older children often send the Pope notes outlining their worries about the future.
"They write, 'What will the world be like when we grow up?' " said another Vatican source. "They're worried about peace and nuclear war."
John Paul himself sees few of the gifts, except for those that are piled onto a special table near his throne during his weekly general audiences, or those pressed upon him directly as his Pope-mobile chugs through a crowd in St. Peter's Square.
But the thousands of presents--the Vatican keeps no formal count--are always put to some use.
Perishable foods, like the "mazurek" honey cakes and "makowiec" poppy seed cakes that arrive in droves from the Pope's Polish countrymen, are passed on to children's homes, hospitals, convents and monasteries in Rome, Vatican sources said.
Most of the sausage links, whole hams, breads, wheels of cheese, turkeys, wine, liquor, Polish vodka and champagne "have to be given away because he just couldn't eat all he gets," said one Vatican source.
Stored in Warehouse
Religious articles--hand-carved crucifixes, china madonnas, Nativity scenes, religious paintings, chalices, altar cloths, tabernacles--usually are stored in the Vatican's own warehouse until the Pope passes them on to needy missionaries in Third World countries.
Personal checks and money orders--ranging in size from a child's piggy bank savings to thousands of dollars--go to whatever fund the donors cite: for missionaries, Polish relief or African drought aid, among others.
Money not designated for a specific purpose goes into a special fund the Pope uses at his discretion. When John Paul visited a refugee hospital in Thailand during his 1984 trip to Asia, the $50,000 he left behind came from his discretionary fund.
John Paul also gives his own Christmas gifts to the roughly 13,000 employees of the Vatican city-state, and everybody, from cardinal to gardener, gets the same present. Last year it was "panettone," a light Italian Christmas cake, and a bottle of spumante, the Italian version of champagne.