Paul VI Audience Hall (also known as the Hall of Pontifical Audiences) was full of excited people, clapping loudly as Pope Francis entered through the main door of the hall.
From the entrance to the stage, where he greets believers from all over the world every Wednesday, he walked slowly, whispering, and reaching into the hands of the people on each side of the aisle.
We were standing on the right side of the hall, waiting to be directed forward. We were a little concerned because we didn’t know what the protocol was and what was coming next. We couldn’t see the Pope directly because of the large crowd, so we stood there and watched on the big screen.
We knew we would soon be able to hand him the gift book that we had been preparing for a long time at Operando.
God turns, Man Turns
It all happened so suddenly. God clearly knew why we had to postpone our departure to Peru. Not only because Silva had just learned (four days earlier) that she would have to undergo surgery (nothing dangerous but necessary), but also because a day later, the apostolic nuncio directed us to Rome, and we could not turn down the possibility of handing the Operando’s gift book to Pope Francis.
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We had to write down our intention, include a presentation of Operando in it, demonstrate our support for the Pope, and then send it via msgr. Jean-Marie Speich to the Vatican. We waited anxiously for an answer before receiving an invitation to the audience just one week before the event.
We didn’t have much preparation time, but we were glad to be able to go to Rome again. This is where our missionary journey began when, four years ago, the L’arche community in Ciampino opened its doors to us. We stayed there for almost three months, with people with intellectual disabilities.
Our experience especially marked us because we first met and met Pope Francis at L’Arche community. His unexpected visit to this small community and meeting him in person was a sign of confirmation that we had made the right decision, something we had been praying for and asking for.
As paths cross
During our journey around the world, we were blessed twice more when our paths crossed with Pope Francis again. The Pope visited Myanmar at the time we were traveling from Myanmar to Bangladesh . And he visited Bangladesh when we were serving in the community of the Italian missionary Riccardo in Dhaka, the capital of this country.
I remember at that time a group of children from this community, accompanied by p. Riccardo, went to the Dhaka Center for a reception by the Pope. He was given a modest but beautiful gift made from scrap material collected by the homeless children of Tokai, material they sell in the streets to earn a living.
We didn’t meet the pope at the time, but on these ‘blessed coincidences’ we had a good feeling that we were following the same path, which we always regarded as confirmation.
After a long time again in Rome
So, we went to Rome. The eight-hour train journey from Trieste to Rome passed faster than we expected. Considering that we left our country at 4 AM in the morning, we were able to get in some sleep, helped considerably by the monotonous run of the lowland rails.
When we got off the train, the weather was surprisingly warm. We knew we could expect higher temperatures than in Slovenia, but 20 degrees was more than we expected and was unusual for Rome at this time of the year.
We stayed with Kaja, who, thank God, graciously opened the door to her home for us. In addition, her apartment is so close to St. Peter’s Square that we were able to walk there. We dropped off our luggage at Kaja’s, and although it was late afternoon, we had to go to the Vatican after a pass that was already waiting for us in the prefecture.
That was all we could and had to do that day. We were exhausted and returned to the apartment. At nine o’clock in the evening, we were already in bed.
Auditions close up
The hall went silent as Pope Francis sat in his chair and the audience began. We were still standing on our side, waiting for the Vatican delegate. He finally came to us and was very helpful in leading us to the protocol part of the hall, that is, to the first few rows at the foot of the stage, slightly separated from the rest of the hall.
There were many very different people around us – high government officials, delegates, priests, and even an Arab sheik. But there were also simple people like us – families with sick children, a group of people in wheelchairs, and other specially invited guests.
We knew that the group of people in this first part of the hall was informally called ‘baciamano’ (kiss of the hand). These fortunate individuals have the opportunity to meet the Pope in person after the audition, where they can kiss his hand. Actually, this symbolic gesture of respect was more characteristic in the past, and Pope Francis says that he now prefers a friendly handshake.
When the official part of the audience was over, the Pope, accompanied by some priests from the podium, came to the front of the hall and walked slowly from one person to the other, shaking hands, exchanging some words and blessing everyone, from the first kind to the last.
We were sitting in the fourth row, so we had to wait at least half an hour before he approached us.
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The heart opens and the spirit speaks
People ask us how someone feels before meeting a man like Pope Francis. Sure, you might be scared, but when you see his face, kind and good-natured, with a friendly smile and a warm look, you somehow forget about the power, influence, and reputation he carries. The heart opens and the spirit speaks.
He approached us, reached out, and greeted us warmly. He was visibly tired. We were the last ones greeted which means he had shaken hands with at least fifty people already. He was having difficulty walking and his leg was obviously sore. He took pity on us, but we admired him greatly.
The Pope was moved
Now, my Spanish was being tested. I introduced us to his holy father and told him about Operando. We noticed how attentive he became when I mentioned that we visit missions around the world. Missionary work is very important to him, and he always passionately urges each of us to become a missionary, witness, and proclaimer of the Gospel – through actions, not just words.
Then, I told him why we were here. Silva opened a white leather-wrapped case that contained a gift book.
“Santo padre, in this book that I would like to give you today is a letter of support to you. But in addition to the letter, the book also contains over 2,200 signatures and 177 statements from people about what they think of your work and how it addresses them. This is our united voice to tell you that we support you, trust you, and follow you.”
When Silva opened the book, the Pope reached out and slid his finger across three cover words, reading each one individually: APOYAMOS, CONFIAMOS, SEGUIMOS (We support, trust, follow).
He was moved as he extended his arm and with his fingers slowly slided through each of these three words. He expressed gratitude and blessed us, blessed Operando and blessed all the signatories who supported him.
The Pope Francis blessing
We bring the Pope’s blessing home. To all of you who support the Operando Society, to you who have supported our deeds, and to you who are walking with us, because you care for those most outcast among us.