I am blessed to have personally met Pope Benedict on my pilgrimage to Rome in February, 2006. If you asked him if he remembered me, I would be amazed, as there were approximately 1800 people in his audience that day – although it was considered to be a “private” audience with the Community of St. John. As an oblate with the Community, I was part of that large “private” audience, who were also celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founder of the Community of St. John – Fr. Marie-Dominique Philippe.
While this day may be a blur in the mind of Pope Benedict today, it is a day that I will remember for the rest of my life. We were up at the crack of dawn and entered St. Peter’s Basilica three hours early to get the best possible view of the Holy Father. However, my view seemed to be slightly hindered by a pillar. I tilted my head from side to side as I stretched my upper body, hoping just to catch a glimpse of our new pope. I could see the papal chair, but that darn pillar was obstructing my view. When the Holy Father finally entered the basilica, I could not see him, but joined in the loud cheers and long applause of the crowd. We had been waiting a long time, but the wait proved to be well worth it. I heard his voice, but could not make out the words. The acoustics in that huge old building were very poor. Then, suddenly, I spotted him on the opposite side of the room. We were all gathered in a huge circle around the front, filling the church. I was astonished to see that he was walking around the circle, shaking hands and greeting everyone in the audience. I was told that he wanted to show his appreciation to the Community of St. John for all that they were doing and had done for the Church by following in the footsteps of the beloved apostle, John.
As he moved on the periphery of the crowd, I noticed the reactions of those in the audience – the faces which lit up, as he shook each hand. People were overwhelmed by this great show of affection and became elated-- smiling, laughing, and cheering. I was standing in the front, feeling the weight of bodies pushing against my back. There was so much excitement that it was difficult to focus and plan what I might say or do when he got to me. I just kept snapping photos with my camera, taking shot after shot of him. As he drew closer, I noticed that he was shorter than I had expected, about 5’6”, slender, and refined, looking very dignified in his immaculately white simar with fringed fascia, and zucchetto. He was also wearing his pectoral cross which was suspended from a gold cord. I could not help but notice his distinctive red leather Gammarelli loafers. Before I knew it, he has shaking the hand of the person next to me, who said, “Holy Father, we love you and we’re praying for you.” As he moved to me, I was on cloud nine. He reached out for my hand and tenderly touched it, responding, “Grazie” in a soft, gentle voice. This was better than anything I had ever imagined. I felt like the woman who had been hemorrhaging for many years and thought that if she just touched the hem of the garment Jesus was wearing, she would be healed. Our Holy Father, Christ’s Vicar on earth, had that same type of effect on me. Like Jesus, he was kind and gentle, and he had a healing touch, which I prayed would literally rub off on me. For, I needed healing at that time and still do, just as we all do. I knew that just being there, so close to him, would impact my life in the years to come.
Prior to that 2006 pilgrimage, I had retired early from a successful career that I loved, which required me to perform some activities that I was no longer physically able to do. Then in 2009, I read about an opportunity to earn a Master of Arts degree in Theology online and there were even scholarships available. For almost twenty years, I had wanted to do this, but the funds were not there. Now, this opportunity appeared out of nowhere. My mind reflected back on the physically challenging pilgrimage I had made to Italy (which was a miracle in itself for several reasons) and the encounter I had with Pope Benedict. I knew that if God had let me meet the Holy Father, he could also perform another miracle in my life. And, He did. This past December, I graduated with my Master of Arts in Theology, but not before studying the wonderful encyclicals and the writings of that great theologian, Pope Benedict XVI.
I am sad that he is retiring from his active position as pope due to health problems, but I understand. It is time for him to rest and to pray for those whom he has met on life’s journey. As he grows older and weaker, he can be an even more powerful instrument for the Lord, in his weakness, offering up his suffering for the salvation of souls. For, St. Paul tells us, “When I am weak, I am strong.” (2 Cor. 12:10) We have also learned from the Holy Father himself that suffering is nothing to fear, for “God is on the side of those who suffer” (Jesus of Nazareth, Volume 2).
Today, on his final day as Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, I know exactly what I want to say to our dear Papa: “Grazie, Holy Father. We love you and we are praying for you.”
~ copyright Jean M. Heimann February 2013