My Visit to The Vatican
I remember it clearly, travelling to Ballybritt in the middle of the night, queues as we travelled through Knock and Claremorris. It was 1979, long before the Knock-Claremorris Bypass, but we didn’t care about bad roads or traffic, we were on our way to see the Pope.
Looking back now it was a very different Ireland, everybody had flasks and sandwiches, rugs and top coats kept out the chill and primitive dry toilets were the facilities on offer. People were happy, singing, some were praying. When he arrived in the Pope-mobile, he charmed us all with his smile and his broken English - “young people of Ireland I love you”.
34 years later I received an invitation to visit the Vatican and meet Pope Francis personally. As a politician you meet, or at least see, lots of well known leaders, heads of state etc and to be honest I really don’t pay much extra attention when I do. I think I have arrived at a time in my life when I now know that power is transient and no matter what the title, people are still human beings with all the faults and failings that the rest of us have. Yet when I received this invitation to meet the Pope, I was pleased, indeed I felt very honoured.
When I reflected on my instinctive reaction to the invitation, I realised that, to me, Pope Francis is not just the Pope, he is a Pope who lives his life in tune with his words. He has an obvious authenticity and that is something I value highly in any person I meet. For me, it is particularly important in our leaders - Church and State - to be authentic and Pope Francis is exactly that. Time Magazine selected him as Person of the Year 2013 and the following extract tells us why in a nutshell “For pulling the papacy out of the palace and onto the streets, for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgement with mercy, Pope Francis is Time’s 2013 Person of the Year”.
We arrived at the Vatican on a bright, blue skied crisp Saturday morning; there were eight MEP’s, all of us members of the Working Group on Human Dignity in the European Parliament, hence our invitation. About 300 people were ushered into a room, the Pope entered and there were a number of short speeches. A smaller number had the opportunity to shake his hand and speak with him for a few seconds - I was one of the lucky ones. He radiated a sort of stillness, a type of serenity, but he was warm, so human, so ordinary and yet extraordinary. My West of Ireland accent didn’t help and his English is poor, so in the end, I suspect neither of us really understood what the other said, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was he knew I wished him well in his work as Pope and that I was genuinely glad to meet him.
Within a few seconds I was back in my seat and within an hour I was on my way to the airport. Life goes on, but for a brief while, I was privileged to meet somebody that I believe will be an inspirational leader in the Church and will make a positive contribution to world affairs.
I wish him well.