Fr. Roger J. Landry
Putting into the Deep
October 2, 2015
When I started working for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations seven months ago, I knew that, no matter how long the assignment lasted, one of the highlights would come right at the beginning: the opportunity to play some role in Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to New York in general and to the United Nations in particular. I knew I’d learn a lot, work a lot, not sleep a lot, and have a lot of fun — all of which came true.
Based on the amount of texts, emails and phone calls I’ve been receiving from friends asking what the experience was like, I thought I’d share a few observations, one difficult and two exhilarating, with a wider audience.
First, the difficulty. There’s an aphorism that those who have been involved in the planning of papal pilgrimages regularly communicate, that the toughest part of hosting a papal trip involves requests for tickets and papal access.
For most events on a papal itinerary, tickets are finite while the demand is basically infinite. Even when there will be a outdoor Mass in a venue large enough to accommodate millions, there is still a blitzkrieg of requests for tickets to special sections up close. Even the most hospitable organizers have got to get ready to say no much more than can say yes. That’s especially hard when as a Catholic and a cleric you’d want to do everything you can to bring as many people as possible into contact with the successor of St. Peter and all the good such an encounter might bring. You have to get good at polite refusals when you constitutively want to give enthusiastic accommodation.
On the positive side, it’s great to see the extraordinary interest. It’s also great to be put back into contact from people you haven’t heard from since kindergarten!
Allied with the ticket dilemma is the parallel situation of people wanting to meet the Pope personally or at least have you present things to him for them.
There were parishes asking him to come to celebrate daily Mass; families and organizations that wanted him to join them for lunch; business leaders, academics, artists, even world leaders, asking for appointments to brief him on what they’ve been up to.
There were also people sending him Rosary beads they had made, drawings they had sketched, books they had written, dossiers they had compiled with lengthy musings on sundry subjects, sweets they had baked, stuffed animals they thought he’d like and so much more.
The interest, generosity, and creativity were inspiring, but I often wondered how big people thought the papal carry-on was!
The first of the two exhilarating aspects of the pilgrimage was watching how people responded to being in Pope Francis’ presence.
I’ve had the privilege to be present at hundreds of liturgies and papal audiences in the Vatican where I’ve seen how moved people can get, but the experience never gets old. Witnessing UN personnel and delegates, fellow staff members, kids, seniors, police officers, handicapped people, religious women, priests and just “average Americans” get so emotional at seeing the Pope pass in a motorcade, walk down the nave of St. Patrick’s, pass by their seat in the General Assembly, or be driven around Madison Square Garden before Mass was even more special, because it was happening here at “home.”
Why does simply being in the pope’s presence make people of every conceivable category respond with overflowing elation or copious tears of joy? The reaction greatly exceeds what happens, in kind and degree, when we’re in the presence of other famous people.
I’m convinced that it occurs not simply because of grace but because the Pope is fundamentally a sign. The Pope binds us to the historical reality of St. Peter, St. Peter points us to the historical reality of Jesus Christ, and Jesus points us to the existence of God and the mystery of his love. Being in the presence of the successor of St. Peter is a moment in which, whether consciously or subconsciously, we are moved inwardly to say, “It’s all true! God is real. Christ truly came and founded a Church. And this Pope, here in front of me, is proof that everything that I heard and to some degree believed took place 2,000 years ago really happened!”
And it’s so beautiful to see so many spiritual light bulbs go off at the same time.
The other exhilarating experience was meeting Pope Francis for the first time and introducing my parents to him.
I had the privilege back in 2000 to introduce my mother and father to St. John Paul II in the Vatican, but they were so overwhelmed by the experience that the only parts of their body that spoke were their tear ducts.
This time I sought to prepare them as we were heading over to the residence where Pope Francis was staying.
I asked each of them what they wanted to say.
My mother said, “I want to tell him, ‘Pope Francis, I love you and I pray for you every day!’” I told her that I’m sure Pope Francis would really appreciate that.
My father — like St. Joseph a strong man of few words — asked me for a suggestion. I replied, “I think you should say, ‘Thanks, Pope Francis, for being such a good spiritual father.’” My dad approved of the suggestion.
I’m happy to say that both of them with tenderness, poise and affection said flawlessly what they were intending — and each solicited a sincere, smiling, “Thank you!” from Pope Francis.
I, too, had thought a lot about what to say. I decided that I most wanted to thank him for the impact he’s had on me through the way he’s spoken about and shown mercy and charity.
“Gracias, Santidad,” I said in Spanish with a smile, “por su ejemplo sacerdotal que finalmente me ha convertido!” “Thanks, Holy Father, for your priestly example which has finally converted me!”
The Pope grinned and with a little mischief in his eyes and voice said, “Convertido ciertamente por lo peor!” “Converted, no doubt, for the worse!”
Whether he was talking about the present state of my soul or the directionality of his example, we both broke out in laughter as I replied, “¡Espero que no!” “I hope not!”
At one point he started pulling on my mom’s arm to lead her to his side as he said, “Una foto de familia!” “A family photo!” And once my mother lined up on his left with my dad and me on his right, he commented, “Tres padres y una madre!” “Three fathers and a mother!,” as the photographers took a family photo we’ll never forget or take down.
It will always be for me a reminder as well of one of Pope Francis’ main messages: how each of our families is meant to fit into the much bigger family of God.