by Jim Morin, seminarian at Pontifical North American College
It’s not every day that the pope stops by your house.
But the successor of St. Peter did just that Saturday, May 2, when he hopped in his blue Ford Focus and headed to the North American College in Rome – the home that I share with 250 other American, Canadian, and Australian seminarians – for Mass and a pastoral visit.
Even though the distance of this papal pilgrimage could be measured in city blocks, this sort of visit is extremely rare. The last occurrence was in 1980, when the still-young John Paul II made his way up the Janiculum hill (the hill overlooking the Vatican) to the college. In fact, Saturday was Pope Francis’ first visit to any seminary in Rome, a testament to the importance of the American Church for the world, both now and in the future.
The visit was the culminating moment of a day held in honor of Blessed Junípero Serra, whom the Holy Father will canonize during his upcoming trip to the United States. Prior to the Holy Father’s arrival, several talks were given on the life and witness of the to-be saint. José Gomez, Archbishop of Los Angeles, and Carl Anderson, Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, both spoke of the key role Bl. Junípero played in the evangelization of the natives, as well as the protection his missions provided from the less than sympathetic colonial governments. It’s a history worth knowing, especially as the dominant culture tries to rewrite the story of America’s origins through a hyper-secular lens.
After the conferences, all the priests and seminarians (including Lincoln’s own Father Matthew Rolling) went to the seminary chapel to await the Holy Father’s arrival for Mass. I was fortunate to have been assigned as a master of ceremonies for the Mass, which meant I waited in the sacristy. I think I felt about as excited (and about as nervous) as I did when I served my first Mass in fifth grade at St. Teresa Parish in Lincoln.
The bells began ringing as the pope pulled in, and a few minutes later, right before my eyes, he shuffled into the sacristy and began to shake the hands of the servers and the MCs. I dropped an extremely profound “welcome, Holy Father” as he firmly shook my hand.
From that moment on, there occurred what I can only describe as a completely “incarnational” moment. The Pope – the Vicar of Christ and Successor of St. Peter, the ultimate guard and protector of Divine Revelation, and the visible source of the Church’s unity – had arrived. But I saw, heard, and touched a man, flesh and bones, with a certain smile and a frayed white cassock. I couldn’t help but grin when he had a bit of trouble getting his alb to lie straight.
As I watched him vest (I helped him with his amice), I could not help but think that this must have been something like meeting Jesus Christ himself: a man who was fully human, but with something powerful pulsing underneath, accessible only by faith. In Christ, that something was God Himself. In the Holy Father, God was present in a different way, not only through the pope’s personal holiness, but also simply through his office, instituted by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit. There is nothing more Catholic than the truth that our all-loving God comes to us through solid, rough, tangible realities – that’s the meaning of the Incarnation, the sacraments, and the pope.
The Mass went smoothly enough – as smoothly as it can when the sacristy is overrun by security guards. During the homily, Pope Francis preached about Bl. Junípero Serra, whom he called a “tireless missionary” who was spurred on by a “desire to proclaim the Gospel to the nations.” This is the same desire which is at the heart of the pope’s desire to visit the United States next fall. In fact, during his homily given in Italian, the pope prayed explicitly for the Americas: “We ask the Risen Jesus, Lord of all ages, that the life of our American continent may be rooted ever more deeply in the Gospel it has received.”
After Mass, I shook his hand again, this time with Father Rolling, a Lincoln priest in Rome for further studies. The pope slowly drove down our driveway, waving to the seminarians. St. Peter had come and gone, in a matter of two hours. But the memory of seeing, hearing, and touching the man – the pope – will remain forever.