Sitting prominently on a shelf in my office is a picture of myself and John Paul II. Its proof of the day I met someone who has given his entire life to faith…and made me think about my own commitment to faith (or relative lack thereof).
And whenever my friend Bill sees the
picture, he always reminds me: “I bet the pope doesn’t have that picture in his office.”
Probably not. But it’s still a day I’ll always remember. Why, I remember it like it was just yesterday…[cue harp music, begin dream sequence].
Woke up, it was a Vatican morning
7:00am, and I’m walking up to the big Bronze Door of the Vatican. The Swiss guards are standing there, glaring at me like I’m trying to sell them encyclopedias. I don’t speak Swiss (otherwise known as French or German), but I’m pretty sure one said to the other: “You mean this guy gets to meet the pope? Apparently it’s an open door policy around here nowadays…”
My name’s on the list, thank God, and I join the other 20 or so other people who have been invited this morning. So we’re all sitting there with these big, stupid grins on our faces (admittedly, I always have that grin on my face).
And who can blame us? We’re going to have Mass with the Holy Father.
As we walk through the papal apartments, I’m constantly looking around, wondering what’s going to happen. Does the pope just walk in and meet us? Is there a horn fanfare to introduce him?
Well, we walk through this room, down a hallway, and are directed to the left. Suddenly we’re in his private chapel—and there he is. Kneeling in prayer, only feet away from us: John Paul II .
Not a cardboard cutout
What can I say about Mass with the Vicar of Christ in his private chapel? The word “cool” comes to mind, but maybe that doesn’t suffice.
And I know this should be a highlight in my spiritual life. I want it to be.
But I can’t help looking over at him and just thinking…”Wow! That’s the pope right next to me. Look how intense he is at prayer. Wow, he’s really praying hard.”
And at that point I realize I’m supposed to be praying as well.
The pope and the potatoes
After Mass we all go into this big room and wait for him to enter. So the door opens up, and he’s smiling and joking around. He talks to each person one at a time, and the first thing I notice is that everyone has brought the Holy Father a gift. Everyone, that is, except me (apparently I didn’t get the memo).
One woman brings him flowers; a young priest gives him a map of South America. A little further down is a group of priests from Idaho, and they’re a little goofy (and coming from me, that’s really saying something). What was their gift to the Holy Father? A giant book about Idaho. There were pictures of potatoes,
and…well, I think that was about it.
The sounds of silence
Then it was my turn. Admittedly, I’m not known for having a great mastery of the English language, but what am I supposed to say to the Pope? I just keep telling myself: “It’s the Pope, Lino, say something smart. Don’t mess this up.” And as I go to kiss his ring, the first thing that comes out of my mouth is…
Silence. (The good thing is I haven’t said anything stupid at this point.)
And as you can see in the picture, I’m leaning in to say something—I’m pretty sure I said something embarrassing and charming simultaneously.
But the last thing I said was really all that any of us needs to say to a man who has devoted his whole life to the Church. To a man who persists in bringing hope to the world through his writings, his preaching, his travels, and his peacemaking efforts…in spite of his own physical limitations. To a man who has lived the Gospel in a profound way the past 83 years.
“Thank you, Holy Father.” What else could I say? Thank you, Holy Father.