Meeting John Paul II
I hadn’t seen Father Kelty in years. The last time was on a picket line in front of an abortion clinic on a crisp, breezy November morning in southeastern Pennsylvania. I was just out of high school and involved with our county’s pro-life organization. Father Kelty had enthusiastically joined our efforts to close the clinic. I had known him through my father when Kelty, before his ordination, was a legislative aide to a democratic state representative who was sympathetic to the pro-life movement. Through prayer, protest, and the help of like-minded public officials, the clinic was closed only weeks after it had opened. It was 1978. A new pope had been elected and a fresh, youthful wind was beginning to blow from the ancient, eternal city.
Although it had been over two decades, Ed Kelty hadn’t changed a bit. He met us at Leonardo da Vinci Airport wearing a black cassock and a big smile. Somehow, and I can’t recall the details, he had gotten a job as a liaison for the Vatican, working with the eastern churches who acknowledged the Bishop of Rome as the Supreme Pontiff. When my wife, Cathy, had earned enough frequent flyer miles traveling and telecommuting on her job from Philadelphia to St. Louis, we decided on a family vacation to Rome. I contacted Father Kelty who insisted we make our pilgrimage in the middle of June. He said he might have a nice surprise for us if we acceded to his request. We altered our travel dates and, in doing so, ended up changing our lives.
Throughout the next week, Father Kelty was our mentor and our guide. He spoke fluent Italian which came in handy, especially when ordering meals at the out-of-the-way trattorias in and around the city. Unlike the more formal ristorantes, the trattorias were small mom-and-pop eateries that Kelty preferred because of price and quality. Often, there were no menus and wine was sold by the decanter, not the bottle. Father would furiously bicker with the waiter over the choice of cuisine. Thankfully, our pastor, Father John Foster, from St. Joseph the Worker Church, who was traveling with us as our guest, my mother, my wife, and my children did not understand any part of these gastronomical discussions, as there were more than a few spicy comments between papa and priest.
As true pilgrims, we had mass said at all four great patriarchal basilicas: St. Peter’s (we celebrated mass at the very tomb of the fisherman), St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls (where Father Kelty took us to Tre Fontane to see the grotto of the “Virgin of Revelation”), and St. Mary Major. Fathers Foster and Kelty con-celebrated the masses in Latin, and I read from the lectern in English. We visited the coliseum and said a rosary honoring the many nameless martyrs who were butchered there. At La Scala Sancta, my son, Patrick, on his knees, made his way up the twenty-eight marble steps (enclosed in wooden planking) leading up to the Holy of Holies and the praetorium of Pontius Pilate where Christ was judged.
Father Foster and I, my daughter, Mary Kate, who was nine-years-old, and my mother made a special excursion to Assisi. I have never in my life felt such peace. While gazing upon Francis’ crypt underneath the basilica, even though there were many pilgrims, not a whisper could be heard. The site breathed tranquility and blessed my soul with an indescribable gift of quietness. I smiled when I saw Brother Leo’s tomb lying so near to the remains of his sainted friend and confessor who taught him the meaning of “Perfect Joy”.
Meeting a pope
It was after this side trip when Father Kelty informed us his hoped for surprise had materialized. There was to be a meeting of the eastern churches with the pope. It was an annual event with a lengthy presentation on the affairs of the churches loyal to the magisterium. Somehow, Father Kelty managed to have us invited. We were to meet at the Vatican in front of the iron gates of the apostolic palace the next morning. Cathy and my mother had suitable black dresses to wear for the meeting. The boys had dark suits. Mary Kate, however, only had a little yellow dress. Nobody knew the protocol about children’s attire. We just assumed it would be okay.
After breakfast at the hotel we jumped into cabs and were immediately swept into the helter-skelter, bumper-to-bumper traffic nightmare that is part of everyday Roman existence. As we were driven over the Tiber, I remember thinking about the appropriateness of my daughter’s dress. She sat in the back of the cab chatting away with Cathy as mothers and daughters do everywhere. She had a finger twirled up in her long, brown hair, talking and looking at the other cars and mopeds, seemingly within touching distance. A plain, gold necklace with a simple cross adorned her neck. “Too cute” was the phrase used at the time in America, and it described her exactly. No need to worry, dad.
The cab driver pulled up in front of the palace where Father Kelty met us and introduced his departmental boss, an American bishop from the Midwest. Among the other guests were bearded clerics from the eastern churches, ambassadors of state, even royalty – everyone dressed to the nines. Mary Kate was the only child.
We were escorted into the palace with Swiss Guards snapping to attention as we passed. An elevator took us to a floor upstairs and we were led into one of the Raphael reception rooms with its magnificent frescoes lining walls and ceiling. We were seated in the very last row because we had no diplomatic standing. Suddenly, the majordomo opened the doors and tapped his staff on the tiled floor. Everyone stood. John Paul II, now an aged pontiff, slowly made his way into the room with a bent back and an unsure stride. He took his seat upon a cushioned throne and gazed at the fifty or so attendees. His eyes rested upon Mary Kate, standing out in all the finery of the room in a simple yellow dress.
The meeting took almost an hour. The entire time, the pope never took his eyes off of Mary Kate. When we first assembled outside the palace that morning, the American bishop told us he did not know if the pope was able to greet us personally because of his suffering. Happily, however, John Paul nodded to his steward and, one by one, the guests lined up in front of the throne. We were, of course, last in line. Mary Kate, who was understandably tenuous, took hold of my hand as we approached the throne. I had instructed her to genuflect and kiss his ring. She didn’t. She just walked before him and stood there beaming a winning smile. John Paul couldn’t resist. He gently placed his powerful, arthritic hands over her shoulders and took her to him. The pope’s Mary-blue, Polish eyes danced delightedly. He kissed her on both cheeks. One of the cardinal’s standing on the right of the throne laughed repeatedly “bambina, papa … bambina!” It was Cardinal Ratzinger. My turn was next. As I kissed his ring I felt the man’s strength. I have met many famous people in my life, from presidents to screen stars. All these meetings put together do not come close to the way I felt in the precious seconds I spent greeting this holy priest. The feeling has stayed with me ever since.
In his book Our Lady of Fatima, William Thomas Walsh, who interviewed Lucia extensively, wrote of how the children could not speak for some time after one of their encounters with the Mother of God. Karol Józef Wojtyla, Pope John Paul the Great, now recognized as a saint, had a similar effect on us, although, I’m sure he wouldn’t countenance such a lofty comparison. About an hour after our meeting, we sat down for a mid-day meal at a small trattoria just off Vatican Square. Father Kelty ordered for us (without argument). We just couldn’t speak.