Recently I attended an audience with Pope Francis with the International Council of Christians and Jews. It was my second audience, as I had also gained access to the Vatican’s elaborate reception room through the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam.
The journey into the heart of the Vatican evoked the Christian theological principle of advent, as we advanced through the Borgia courtyard and drew higher up the staircases into the lavishly painted coatroom and excitement mounted buzzingly amidst the group. I followed the sea of bobbing yarmulkes through the ornate hallways. In the reception room they asked us not to take pictures, but of course when Pope Francis entered everyone stood and went bananas with their cell phone cameras, iPads, camcorders, etc.
One of the conference leaders read a statement to Pope Francis thanking him for his time, and three gifts were presented, one jointly to Pope Francis and Rabbi Abraham Skorka, a member of the ICCJ with whom he wrote On Heaven and Earth, a book on Jewish-Christian dialogue, back when he was still Bergoglio, Archbishop of Argentina.
After the presentation of gifts, Pope Francis rose from his simple chair—not the ornate throne that his predecessors have used—and faced the audience in front of a microphone. He welcomed the group to Rome, speaking in Italian: “Here in Rome, we also find the most ancient Jewish community in Western Europe, whose origins can be traced to the time of the Maccabees. Christians and Jews therefore have lived together in Rome for almost two thousand years, even though their relations in the course of history have not been without difficulty.” He invoked the conference theme, “50 Years since Nostra Aetate,” the Vatican II declaration of respect for non-Catholic religions, which helped Christians and Jews begin to heal the “fragmented humanity, mistrust and pride” that divided them for 2,000 years. The Pope spoke of how Christians and Jews have their differences —“The Christian confessions find their unity in Christ; Judaism finds its unity in the Torah”— but together they “confess one God…And he, in his infinite goodness and wisdom, always blesses our commitment to dialogue.”
Then the Vatican guards announced that Pope Francis would take time to greet everybody in the room personally. There were about 250 people. A few months ago, when I attended the audience with the Pontifical Institute for the Study of Arabic and Islam, the pope only greeted the speakers and the bigwigs, so I was surprised and thrilled. For an hour, Pope Francis took the time to greet every single person in the room, which, in this heat, under those vestments, was very generous. In my opinion, this choice reflects a deeper friendship and investment in the relationship between Catholics and Jews, which is consistent with the Church since the Second Vatican Council. At the Council, special commissions were established to develop and support this relationship, as it was recognized that Christians and Jews share a common ancestry and have been notably in conflict throughout Western history.
From the sidelines, I watched Pope Francis continue to greet people tirelessly, animated and attentive with every last person. When Rabbi Skorka approached Papa Francesco, they embraced passionately—they are old friends, joking and smiling, each joyful in the reunion. They also happen to be religious leaders of different religions—so their friendship is symbolic as well as genuine.
The guards formed lines, row by row, and I drew closer to Pope Francis. I would receive, at most, about a minute with him, so I got ready to ask if he would take a selfie with me. I rehearsed my line: Lei può fare un selfie con me? When the line emptied and I was suddenly face-to-face with Pope Francis, staring into his gentle face, I had a Beatlemania blackout moment. I joyfully cried out CIAO!! to him, instead of the more formal Italian salve. He chuckled at me and reached for my hand.
I asked Pope Francis if we could take a selfie together and he respectfully looked at his official photographer for permission. Luckily the photographer was totally into it. I believe they took pictures of us taking a selfie and other people took photos of them taking photos of us taking selfies. Somewhere in the cosmos there is an infinite regression of my selfie with Pope Francis.
My impressions: He is very sweet, soft spoken, grandfatherly, seems tired, has lost weight since I saw him in February, is shorter than I expected, and has the softest hand I’ve ever shaken.
Amidst the looming Swiss Guards, the encounter was a blur. Still, afterward I glowed for hours. It was thrilling to follow the selfie as it exploded on Facebook, almost 300 people liking it and sharing it within hours.
The next day I had a strange feeling. Was it post-popum depression? I had guilt pangs about asking Pope Francis for a selfie, like I had objectified him or used him. I worried I contributed to his depletion, that I just took and didn’t give anything. Not that saying one sentence would have been more substantive. But for some reason I felt that I profaned him! My Christian friend Kristen Leigh Southworth straightened me out. She texted me breathlessly, No way, Pope F is un-profane-able!!! He is a down-to-Earth pope—that’s like his whole thing….He is a true vicar of Christ. Jesus would totally have let you do a selfie.
In a moment of Jewish-Christian dialogue that I cherish, my brilliant friend Kristen got to the theological heart of my ambivalence about taking a selfie with the vicar of Christ:
“It’s hard to have a genuine experience of anything, but especially something particularly special or ‘sacred’ or once-in-a-lifetime. Real holiness always breaks through the mundane. And when you want or expect to have a big holy moment, it always turns out to have a little mundane mixed in there. And that can be disappointing. Like…really, that’s it? This was supposed to be major and life changing and holy! So you can start to think, maybe I did something wrong? I should have done it differently… Been more present to the moment… Something…. But what? I probably would have thought up some intelligently effusive thing to say to him in my head, and when I got up there I would have chickened out and it would have come out all garbled and inaudible and I only would have mumbled something like, “I like Jesus and I like you too.” And he would smile kindly and shake my hand and I would have walked away in some sort of daze, wishing I had kept my mouth shut and taken a selfie with him.
There is nothing wrong with being a fan. That’s why he’s there. That’s literally the reason for the pope to exist. To be an emblem. A face. The vicar of Christ. Someone for people to see. He really gets that. That’s why he goes out to the people, the way Jesus did. The point is for him to both be on the pedestal, and to flip it.”
My selfie with Pope Francis has been clicked and liked round the world. My parents sent it to all their friends. I’ve been in touch with people I haven’t talked to for years, all of whom are radiating with excitement about suddenly being one degree of separation from this fine public figure. This selfie drew forth from my dear Kristen a hot surge of wisdom and insight.
I think it has paid for itself.
Pope Francis was dedicated and generous enough to personally greet all 250 people in his reception room that summer afternoon, though he looked depleted about halfway through our group. When I went to www.photo.va to download official photos of taking a selfie with him, I noted that ours was only one of three audiences the same day. On the photographer’s back calendar, there were multiple official events, audiences, addresses, visits, trips, and interviews scheduled every single day for years. It makes sense that he looks tired. I imagine this valiant, beautiful, earnest 79.5-year-old is pushing himself beyond depletion to fulfill the holy burdens of his sacred office.
Knowing this, seeing Pope Francis up close, sharing a spontaneous moment of humor and co-creation together, and watching his effort to be fully present for all who approached him, makes especially poignant the final words of his address to the International Council of Christians and Jews: “May the Lord bless you and keep you in his peace. I ask you please to pray for me. Thank you.”