Meeting Pope Francis was an unforgettable experience.
In the winter of 2017, my wife and I planned a “babymoon” trip to Italy and France. We planned to spend the beginning of our trip in Rome around Christmastime. Through our parish, we arranged for tickets to the pope’s General Audience, and even requested seats in the section for the newly married (sposi novelli), which is at the front of the Audience.
There was one problem – we weren’t quite newly married, it was more like 2 years into our marriage. But surely, we thought, that wouldn’t be an issue.
However, the day before the General Audience, during the orientation for the event, we sadly learned that the Sposi Novelli section is only for those married under a year. We were told, however, that we could wear our wedding attire and sit with the rest of the crowd at the General Audience, and the blessing from the pope would be offered to all of those in attendance.
My wife expressed disappointment at this news, but somehow I knew deep down that we would meet Pope Francis.
The next morning, we woke up at 4 a.m., dressed in our “wedding attire,” and walked from our AirBnB rental in the Trastevere section of Rome to the Vatican. We stood and waited in the long security line, holding our passes, until finally we entered Vatican City.
Even at this point, after entering with the rest of the crowd in general seating, something still told me we would meet the pope.
Upon nearing the Aula, the venue for the General Audience during the winter, we encountered several young Swiss Guards. I became nervous at what might happen next.
The young men asked, “Sposi novelli?” We sheepishly answered, “Si.” The Swiss Guards led us to the Sposi Novelli section. The Guards did not check our passes or question us whatsoever. Our attire and our “yes” provided us access to this exclusive section.
When my wife and I sat in our coveted seats, we looked at each other like we won the lottery and robbed a bank at the same time. I knew we would arrive at this point, and I was grateful that my intuition became realized.
Was it wrong for us to bypass the technicality of being in the Sposi Novelli section?
Fortunately, we weren’t occupying another couple’s seats, as there was ample space in the section.
That moment, upon reflection, recalls the faith of the Canaanite woman (cf. Matthew 15:21-28) and the woman suffering from hemorrhages (cf. Luke 8:43-48). I am often a stickler for rules and following instructions. However in this moment, I surrendered my tendency for rule-abiding (as well as the unwritten rule shared with us the day before), and accepted our gratuitous and unmerited access to this coveted section as a gift from God to allow our babymoon to be an especially blessed and memorable event.
It was a long morning: waking up early, getting ready, walking in the cold, waiting in a security line, and sitting for hours before the main event. The General Audience itself was beautiful, with a touching message from Pope Francis along with special songs and dances from various parts of the world.
But all of this waiting was well worth it. At the conclusion of the General Audience, after Pope Francis greeted those on stage and the people sitting in front of us, he proceeded to briefly greet each couple in the Sposi Novelli section.
Anticipating this moment, all morning I prepared a brief pitch to Pope Francis. My Spanish is stronger than my Italian, so that’s the language I used for my prepared remarks.
The pope arrived, and so did my moment. He appeared pretty straight-faced, and at one point I thought I should let go of my speech. But we had come this far, literally, and this really was a chance in a lifetime.
“Santo Papá, una bendición para nuestro bebé, por favor.” I then pointed to my wife.
Pope Francis no longer had that straight face. He expressed curiosity, surprise and wonderment. The pope then asked when our baby was due. Pope Francis placed his hands on my wife and prayed for what seemed to be a long and intentional moment. My wife and I immediately experienced the presence of God. Christmas came a few days early. My wife was in tears. I smiled bigger than I ever had in my life.
Before the Holy Father moved on to the next couple, I told him in Spanish that our son’s name will be Matteo Ricci, which is the name of a Jesuit priest and servant of God who evangelized in China. When Pope Francis heard this, he again appeared surprised, and his face lit up. Maybe it was the giant smile on my face, but following this exchange, Pope Francis also had a smile in return.
Four months later, our Matteo arrived. We got the photos of our special encounter with Pope Francis and hung them in our house. Even as a tiny infant, Matteo looked at these photos with wonder. We taught Matteo who the pope was, and that he was there in that photo too. When he began to speak, Matteo would point to these photos and say, “The pope!”
Years later, I began reading Pope Francis’ encyclicals, and more recently his latest book Let Us Dream. I read the pope’s words juxtaposed with the experience of meeting him. I met a pope who expressed curiosity and permitted himself to be surprised—to spontaneously respond to someone in the crowd as Jesus did in the Gospel. I met a pope who saw me for who I am, in a way that communicated that I mattered and that I’m not just an ordinary person in the crowd. I met a pope who impressed on me that every voice matters, and mine especially. I met the pope, even though technically I was not allowed, but that day did allow for an encounter that was not coincidental and that will forever shape my understanding of Christ.
Pope Francis and his witness to Christ—as I experienced in this encounter—helps me confidently witness to the faith and use my voice for this purpose. My hope is that my witness will encourage every member of the faithful to believe that his or her voice is valuable. My hope is to use this God-given gift to reveal the masterpiece of Christ’s Body here on earth.
Image: Provided by the author