He dwells among us: A visit with Pope Francis

Giving to others an audience with Christ through works of mercy is a blessing we are all called to be

In my younger days I always found the concept of the pope to be something distant. After all, the pope did not live in St. Louis or even in the United States.

Even after I entered the seminary I had no expectations that I would ever meet the pope, and if I did, it would be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. But I didn’t have to wait even three years after my priestly ordination for this occasion, and it wouldn’t be the last either. I was fortunate to travel with Archbishop Francis Zayek and now-Bishop Robert Shaheen for a quick meeting with Blessed John Paul II on June 14, 1988, a day I’ll never forget.

Life is filled with many blessings, and following my appointment as Secretary to then-Archbishop Rigali during his early days as archbishop of St. Louis, I was blessed to meet Blessed John Paul II on a number of occasions in Rome. But my fondest memories were of his visit to St. Louis Jan. 26-27, 1999, for which I served as the papal visit coordinator. As some know, I vacated my room so that the Holy Father could use it as his own during his overnight stay. I slept in a recliner in the hall—another blessed memory.

I also was fortunate to meet Pope Benedict XVI twice as Cardinal Ratzinger and four times as Benedict. Each time I found him to be very engaging and warm. With Blessed John Paul, the meeting was short. I actually had conversations, short in nature, with Pope Benedict.

A few years ago, I joined the board of trustees of the Papal Foundation. Over the past 25 years, this foundation—comprised of faith-filled Catholics from around the United States—has donated approximately $88 million to the pope’s charities. As a member of the board, I attend two meetings per year—the first being a spring meeting in Rome and the second in December at the Apostolic Nunciature in Washington. The Rome meeting always includes an audience with the Holy Father.

A number of months ago, in planning for my April visit, I made reservations at the Domus Santa Marta, which usually serves as a type of hotel and is located in Vatican City. My nephew also traveled with me to do some sightseeing.

In between the time I made the reservations and the time of my actual visit, Benedict XVI resigned and the conclave elected Pope Francis. Because the new Holy Father, prior to being elected pope, resided with many other cardinals in the Domus Santa Marta, he decided to remain there after his election, on an experimental basis, instead of moving into the traditional papal apartment. Knowing this, I feared that my reservations would be canceled. But to my surprise I found myself staying in the same residence as the Holy Father and actually dining in the same dining room for 11 meals. And that was the beginning of my introduction to the new Bishop of Rome.

It was a surreal experience for me the first few days to see Pope Francis on a regular basis. Instead of being this distant person, I had daily contact with the Holy Father. He became a familiar figure for me to see up close. I also had a chance to meet him at his general audience on Wednesday, April 10. A nice perk of serving as a bishop is the chance to personally greet the Holy Father at these audiences.

I also had an opportunity to greet the Holy Father again and to speak with him during another audience. Knowing that the pope has a special devotion to a saint with a St. Louis connection, I presented a print of a stained glass representation of St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, which is located in the Archbishop’s Chapel in St. Louis. The chapel window was commissioned in preparation for the visit of Blessed John Paul in 1999. I presented this print along with a letter to Pope Francis and asked again for his blessing for the Diocese of Knoxville. He was very gracious.

The most blessed moment for me came on Saturday, April 13. This day is particularly special to me as it is the birthday of my dad, Frank Stika, who was born in St. Louis in 1910. It also was the one-month anniversary of the election of the Holy Father—another truly special day. The Holy Father has renewed the practice started by Blessed John Paul II of inviting individuals to his 7 a.m. daily Mass. The chapel in the Domus holds perhaps 60 individuals.

On this particular day, the pews were filled with members of the Italian military, Vatican workers, and firefighters in their work uniforms. There also were five concelebrating priests and myself. I was invited by the pope’s secretary to be the principal concelebrant as the only bishop. My first contact with the Holy Father was before Mass. As I entered the large sacristy of the Domus, I immediately caught sight of the Holy Father, already vested, at the opposite side sitting in deep prayer, his eyes closed. After vesting, I silently stood waiting for Mass to begin.

After about five minutes the Holy Father looked up, and in seeing me, immediately rose and walked across the room to greet me. With that warm smile, he said, “I am Francis, who are you and where are you from?” We spoke for a few moments and then he returned to his place and spent a few more moments in prayer. Mass began and as any parish priest, the Holy Father presided and preached for about 10 minutes, completely without notes. We embraced at the sign of peace and had a few moments of conversation following Mass—another blessed memory.

Whereas when I was a seminarian and little imagined ever meeting the pope, even once, Michael Hendershott, one of our seminarians studying in Rome, has the memory of not only meeting Benedict XVI, but also Pope Francis. During an assembly of the Papal Foundation, I was able to present Michael to the Holy Father. Michael has only been a student of the Italian language since last summer, but already has become rather fluent in a short time—so much so that the Pope complimented in English Michael’s fluency saying, “His Italian is excellent!”

The week that I have just described will forever be so very special to me. Rome is always special. Living in Vatican City is exceptional, but to have a daily experience with the 265th successor of St. Peter for a week is something I will never forget. What is he like? From my experience he is a very holy, warm, engaging man who cares for people. Just like his predecessors, he truly is a pastoral man who gives you all the time in the world.

But you don’t need an audience with the pope to experience him as pastor of the Church. Technological advances, particularly over the past decade, have certainly helped to make the popes of our time so much more present to us. Within hours of a homily or message given by the pope, we can read a translation of it online, or receive a tweet from him. Indeed, he is not a distant figure, but always speaking to and encouraging each one of us to help make Christ less distant in the hearts of others. My audiences with the popes have been a special blessing, but the greater blessing is to be the occasion in the lives and hearts of others for an audience with Christ. May you endeavor always to be the face, the hands, and the voice of Christ to all who share life’s journey with you.