I knew very little about Pope Francis when I saw him for the first time on a pilgrimage to Rome in April 2013, because he had only been elected about a month earlier—March 13, 2013.
This was my first trip to Rome and surely my first experience seeing a pope.
I sat in the audience praying a rosary and not really knowing what to expect. When Pope Francis came out and began speaking, there was a strong, cool breeze on the back of my neck that expressed to me that surely the Holy Spirit was with us!
I was so excited that I texted my wife, Paula, to tell her about it, not realizing that it was about 3:30 in the morning back home. The experience was surreal; I will never forget it!
Pope Among the People
Pope Francis spent lots of time riding around in the crowds prior to taking his place on the platform. This told me he was truly a “people” person. Our group was near the middle of the audience, which meant we could not get very close to him, but we could see him stop to hug and kiss almost every small child. His love of people was clearly evident.
Pope’s Gifts to the Church
I believe the Holy Spirit guides the Church and we are given the “gifts” that we need just when we need them. This seems surely to be the case with each pope who is elected to guide the Church.
Most people only remember St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict—very few of us were alive or remember St. John XXIII or Pope Paul VI. All of these were great leaders of our Church, but each possessed different gifts that were just what was needed by the Church at the time.
It is no different with Pope Francis. I see him as a very down to earth and simple man, but he is extremely holy and is most assuredly what the Church needs at this time.
A Shepherd Guarding His Flock
Pope Francis’ most memorable statement to me is that priests should smell like their sheep. I believe we are all called to be shepherds to those who are less fortunate than ourselves. Pope Francis is telling us we are only doing the work of Jesus Christ when we meet the poor, the sick, the homeless, the prisoners, etc., wherever they are.
So what if we smell like a homeless person at the end of the day—this is what Jesus Christ did while he was with us, and this is what he wants us to do.
Worth a Visit to Rome
Even if you’ve already been to Italy before, it is worth it to travel again on pilgrimage to see the new pope! Sure, it may be costly or inconvenient to leave the comforts of our homes to journey to Rome to see Pope Francis, but he is truly the successor of St. Peter.
He needs our support and our love; there is no better way to show our love and support than to visit Rome and go to the Wednesday General Audience or the Sunday Angelus to see Pope Francis in person. It is certainly more exciting and more important that we visit the Pope than any sporting event, Broadway show or movie here in America.
The sheer size of St. Peter’s cannot be grasped in a single visit. I invite anyone who has been to Rome before to go back to admire the beauty and majesty of this beautiful and holy place.
By Barney Lejeune