THE FIRST TIME I went to Rome, nearly 10 years ago, I was shown St Peter's by a young student from Moscow University. "Just like Lenin's tomb" she sniffed, watching the crowds surge through the piazza.
have never been able to go to Moscow to make the comparison, but if it is true then I hope that the many Communists who visit Lenin's tomb are also drawn to question the discrepancy between their founder's ideals and the present administration.
I had imagined that my visit last week would be different. I was looking forward to the colour and noisy chaos of Italy, and was wondering what the Vatican would be like without all-those John Ryan cardinals.
I was expecting to sec at least some of the effects of the Vatican Council's reforms of the curial administration, and to see a far more internationalised Church.
Many of the things that immediately strike a British visitor to Rome had changed. For example, women without a hat or veil or wearing a short-sleeved dress are no longer jostled down the steps of St Peter's by the vigilante nuns at the doors.
St Peter's, inside, still had the atmosphere of a spiritual market-place — prayed in, not just looked at.
I went to Mass there last Sunday and found several vested priests wandering in search of an altar. Those who were successful were immediately surrounded by a little gaggle who waited to hear what language the priest would celebrate in.
When he began, a few would rise and look about for another wandering priest. In the crypt, where the low vaults magnify every sound, the vernacular Mass is used to full effect. I attended an Italian Mass said by a priest with a group of young pilgrims who skilfully wove their lusty singing around the chanting of a German congregation at the next altar.
The more the priest tried to avoid clashes and rivalry, the more his young pilgrims enjoyed trying to out-sing the Germans.
They were singing so intently that they failed to notice that the German Mass had ended and their "Our Father" was rudely interrupted by a loud "Shhh" from a French priest who was trying to get started.
At the same Mass a little old Italian widow elbowed me out of the way to get in front at Communion but gave me the biggest Kiss of Peace I've ever had outside my own family.
I was glad and refreshed to see that Rome hadn't changed in these ways but I had hoped that Ronald Knox's warning about the engine-room itself, the Vatican, was no longer true.
The style of administration and its personnel are still dominased by Italians. A glance at the Annuario Pontifico, still only in Italian, reveals that the monsignori who run the curial departments and congregations arc overwhelmingly Italian.
Although there are now only 32 Italians among the 132 cardinals, most of the congregations and important secretariats have about onethird Italian cardinals serving on them.
The most important ones have more, and in particular the Council for the Public Business of the Church has eight Italians out of a total membership of 17. This seems to be one of the most important bodies in that it is made up of all the senior cardinals from the other congregations.
The over-riding rule seems to be that everything should be secret. At the offices of the English edition of L'Osservatore Romano, the visit of Dr Coggan was not officially known about two days before his arrival.
At a reception given for Dr Coggan I was introduced to a bishop who, I was told, helped to draw up the document on sexual ethics. I asked him how a document comes to be drawn up. "Goodbye", he said, offering me his hand, "I do not discuss my work with anyone". And he walked off.
I asked about Cardinal Hume's complaint in a recent interview that English Catholics had not been consulted on the married priests' issue. The suggestion that anyone in the Vatican should discuss their work with anyone outside it was frankly laughed at.
One very senior cleric working on the fringes of the Vatican described it as a bunker buried very deeply from which documents were issued from time to time.
It was impossible, he explained, to discover when they were coming, why they come, or where they come from. He was quite flustered when I ask ed him if any of these documents could emerge without the knowledge of Pope Paul.
No one seems to know the mind of Pope Paul or his faithful right-hand man, Archbishop Benelli, but there is a strong sensation of the end of an era with those who opposed change struggling hard to gather the loose reins of power, The doors that began to open ;after the Council have been !temporarily closed.
By tar the most disturoing insight into what seemed to be Happening in Rome was the vast discrepancy between the Italian and English attitude to law.
The English attitude is that the law should be clear but its application should be flexible. It takes into account human error, degrees of liability and negligence. Much is left to the individual judge to interpret and balance culpability with circumstance. But the law is the law: it is a serious matter to break it. The government does not pass taws it thinks cannot be enforced.
In Italy. on the other hand, because of the long anarchic state of Italian society and the traditional and prevalent ineffectiveness of Italian government, law is quite different.
In the first place citizens pay scant attention to it, and in the second place the lawmakers know that people ignore it. Nevertheless they continue, if not to strive harder, to make laws.
It is their job to scatter laws as widely and as repetitively as they can in the hope that someone may take notice of some of them some of the time.
Because of the difficulty of getting the laws obeyed they must be forcefully put. Hence the buses of Rome are plastered with notices forbidding all sorts of things. Their effect? Practically nil.
Anotheraspect of law in Italy is that it is always made for all time. Law cannot be repealed. If a law needs to be counteracted then another law is passed and in the courts the most recent pronouncement is accepted.
Traffic lights, I was told by one taxi-driver, were "a danger sign" at a crossing as he shot over a.red light. do not know how Italian tourists react to the implacable British copper when he books them for going over a red light, but it is interesting to speculate on a document such as Humanae Vitae in the context of Italian law and the Italian attitude to law.