That Day I Met the Pope and How I Got There

Earlier in the year, through my day job managing the Verbum Catholic Study Software, I was able to participate in a semi-private audience with Pope Francis in Rome.  Verbum co-sponsored the Jesus and the Pharisees conference organized by the Pontifical Biblical Institute (aka, the Biblicum) in Rome.  Below is the post with the picture and a brief caption describing the picture.  The post below contains the longer story of how that picture came to be.

All Roads Lead to Rome: How Verbum Met the Pope

In the Beginning…

It all began in Rome, on a cool October evening last year, on a rooftop overlooking the Piazza Navona, with the domes of Sant’Agnese church looming rather magnificently behind us.  The Pontifical Biblical Institute (aka, “the Biblicum”) had just begun using the Verbum software and a custom library, which we designed in collaboration with the Biblicum’s faculty.  Our Academic Director Mike and I had just finished a week of training with the faculty and students at the Biblicum. Also around the table on the rooftop were Fr. Peter Dubovsky, S. J., Dean of Students at the Biblicum, and Fr. Alan Fogarty, S.J., the president of the Gregorian University Foundation.  We sat reflecting on the accomplishments of the week and the next steps in our newfound relationship.

The Verbum team in Rome, pictured middle, with Fr. Peter Dubovsky, SJ, left, and Fr. Alan Fogarty, SJ, right. The Dome of Sant Agnese in the background.

In the evening Roman breeze, we discussed what the next year was going to look like.  We were made aware of a conference the Biblicum would be putting on concerning a reappraisal of Jesus and the Pharisees.  This was a big deal: an international, inter-religious conference to reevaluate the role the Pharisees actually played in Jesus’ life and in the subsequent life of the Church.  The essential concern the conference wished to address was the healing of anti-Semitism and addressing how Christians had negatively viewed the Pharisees as a source of that negativity.  Fr. Alan asked if we wanted to take part and support the event, which would bring the Verbum team back to Rome in May.  

A poster from the conference in Rome.

We gratefully accepted the invitation.  We were honored to be invited and are excited about this new development in our relationship.  We also learned there would be a Papal Audience for those participating in the event. My mind began to spin. “A private audience with the pope?  Semi-private? Actually inside the Vatican?” I had attended several Wednesday General Audiences with the Holy Father over the course of my life, sitting in St. Peter’s Square with thousands of other faithful, but this opportunity was on another level entirely.  We had also had some casual, half-serious, half “can you imagine?” conversations about getting Verbum into the Vatican or in front of the pope, but this presented a tangible opportunity to do just that. “What if we put the Biblicum’s package on an iPad and gave it to the pope?” I inquired.  “Could we do that? Is that allowed?” Fr. Alan was receptive to the idea and willing to assist with the endeavor. There were no details as to what the day would look like or any sense as to whether we’d even be able to pull this off, but I knew right then and there that we had to try to make this happen.

My ticket into the Papal Audience.

The idea was becoming reality: we were going to try and give Verbum to Pope Francis.  The weeks and months between that early October rooftop discussion and the conference in early May were occupied with planning for the conference.  There were trans-Atlantic video conference calls and multiple emails exchanged across the nine-hour time difference between Verbum headquarters and the Biblicum in Rome, as well as the trans-continental exchanges of a mere three hours with Fr. Alan and the Gregorian University Foundation in Washington D.C.  While most of these exchanges pertained to the logistics of Verbum’s sponsorship and participation in the Jesus and the Pharisees Conference, I would inquire periodically as to how “the iPad situation” was progressing.  Only one thing was clear: we would have an audience with the pope that was not a vast public gathering.  We knew nothing more than that, and we were full of questions: Could we even get an iPad into the Vatican with the airport-grade security they now employ?  Would we be able to talk with the Holy Father, show him the iPad, and explain what it was? Could we potentially give him a quick demo as to how the software works?  Was that too much to hope for? Was all/any of this too much to hope for? All of these scenarios seemed like possibilities because we just didn’t know how the audience would progress.  How much time would the whole group have?  Would the Holy Father even address us personally?  We had no idea.

The anticipation and gravity of meeting the pope began to sink in.  I’m not the sort that is starstruck by celebrities or famous people, but I was greatly humbled by the opportunity and the grace to be able to participate in the entire event.  Pope Francis is one of the most well-known figures in the world: he is the head of a country, not to mention the visible head of a 2000-year-old church that spans the globe. Any feelings I may have had of being starstruck were certainly tempered by the Holy Father’s own approach to his pontificate, which has consistently been one marked by both humility and simplicity.  The last thing he wants is for people to treat him like some Golden Calf to be venerated. He is human—just like St. Peter whose ministry he continues. He has to put his pants on one leg at a time, just like everyone else.

In mid-April I needed to make a decision about the iPad.  There were still so many unknowns, but no one was opposed to the gifting of the iPad.  Even if we came fully prepared with the iPad loaded with Verbum, there was still no guarantee we would have an opportunity to give the gift.  Fr. Alan’s final advice: “come prepared to do it.”

So that’s what we did.

Into the Papal Palace

The fountain on the right side of St. Peters Square with the colonnade and Papal Palace behind. That would be my trajectory for the morning.

On the morning of Thursday, May 9, all of the Jesus and the Pharisees Conference sponsors, organizers, speakers, presenters, and the faculty and many students from the Biblicum gathered with our Papal Audience tickets in St. Peter’s Square.   The audience was scheduled for 9:30 a.m., and we were to meet at the fountain on the right side of the Square at 7:30 sharp.  If we were late, we could be left behind—and if we weren’t with the group, we’d miss the audience.  Shortly after, we made our way through security and formed a line under the enormous colonnade to the right of the Basilica and just waited.  The Papal Palace filled the entirety of our view toward the Vatican. We would enter through a large set of doors just off the colonnade.

We waited under the colonnade for about 30 minutes, then proceeded inside.  At this point, we still didn’t know specifically where we were going—just “into the Vatican.”  We climbed many steps, five or six flights of stairs in all. We neared the top level of the Papal Palace and stood in line on those vast stairs.  We learned from the inscription and fresco over the doorway that this room was dedicated to San Clemente. The audience would gather in the famed Clementine Hall.

 

Into the Papal Palace we go….

…up lots of stairs…

…and up to the entrance to the Clementine Hall.

The inscription and fresco work at the front of the Hall, just above and behind where the Pope sat.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From here, it was much like entering a church for Mass.  Chairs were arranged in pew formation throughout, but instead of an altar at the front, a large chair was placed where the Holy Father would sit.  We filled the seats from front to back—conference speakers, professors, sponsors, participants, and students of the Biblicum—filling out the richly adorned hall, with its Renaissance frescoes of scenes from the life of St. Clement, along with friezes depicting the cardinal and theological virtues lining the walls.processed in and was seated in his chair.  Fr. Michael Kolarcik, S.J., rector of the Biblicum, offered some opening remarks to the pope, introducing the group and the conference and recapping the history and mission of the Biblicum.  Pope Francis thanked Fr. Kolarcik for his remarks and proceeded, as is often the custom of the Holy Father, to dispense with his own prepared address, saying something like: “You’ve got the paper in front of you and can read it later.  Why don’t you all come forward and I will greet you.” His presence in person that morning was completely congruent with the public image of simplicity and humility that he constantly projects. He seemed a little tired, but he has a busy schedule, having just flown in from Macedonia the evening before.  I can only pray I will be that present and awake when I’m 80 and have just arrived home following an international trip.

The engagement with him proceeded exactly like communion at Mass: we proceeded forward, row by row, except for the fact that when we approached the front of the hall, rather than receiving the Eucharist, we shook Pope Francis’ hand.

Throughout the morning, I had been carrying a white gift bag with a Verbum logo.  Inside the bag was the iPad. As I stood up and began to approach the chair of the Holy Father, I saw the Vatican photographer rapidly snapping photos of everyone who approached Pope Francis, who was now standing in front of his chair.  I had the bag ready to give to him. I could see from the people in front of me that the exchange with the Holy Father was brief, but there were some short conversations and some giving of gifts. I had no idea what the photographer was actually capturing in his photos or whether my gift to the Holy Father would be a part of the picture.  I was seated in the second row in the hall, so my time to approach Pope Francis came fairly quickly. Now was the moment.

“I have a gift for you…”

As I approached him, I held out the bag and said: “I have a gift for you,” and handed him the bag.  I proceeded to quickly explain what he was now holding: “In this bag, contained on the iPad, is the entire library of books the faculty and students at the Biblicum are now using in their studies.”  The Holy Father’s eyes widened in recognition of what I was saying. He said, “Thank you,” nodding his head in acknowledgment. The entire engagement lasted only a few seconds and, much like receiving communion at Mass, I returned to my seat to reflect on what I had just experienced.

Just like the immediate experience of communion at Mass, the experience was brief but profound.  In the Mass, the Creator of the Universe humbles himself to be present under the ordinary elements of bread and wine for the benefit of every person who partakes.  Here, on this day, the Vicar of Christ on earth, His Holiness Pope Francis could have been present by doing the usual: processing in, hearing the remarks from the rector, delivering his own address, giving us a blessing, and going about this day.  But he didn’t. He dispensed with the less important prepared address and instead chose to be present to the people before him in an intimate, individual way.  He humbled himself so that others could be lifted up.

 

 

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