Have you ever wondered what you’d say if you met the pope?
I was in Rome a few weeks ago for a Vatican conference, and I did have the honor of meeting Benedict XVI, and I now know the answer to that question: I have no idea.
The setting was the Sala Clementina, where 200 representatives of the Catholic media from 85 countries were concluding a conference on the Catholic press sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Those of us who had prepared talks or presentations for the conference were seated in the front rows, and after the pope had spoken to the assembly, we were given the chance to greet him.
Like you, I had many things on my mind, great noble things, I wanted to say to him. I was acutely conscious of being there on behalf of Our Sunday Visitor: our staff as well as the readers and writers of all we produce. I also wanted to present him with a copy of the book I had co-written with Matthew Bunson,“Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal.”
I think, given an hour or two of time, I could indeed have said to him all that I had in mind. But at that very moment, surrounded by Vatican officials of various sorts, with cameras clicking in the background, I grasped his hand, and my mind went blank.
I am sure I said something, and I’m sure it was not profound. I did give him a copy of the book, and he smiled and expressed appreciation, and I found myself looking into his eyes, trying simply to remember that moment.
And then it was over. There was one big group photo to follow, and then he was whisked away to another appointment. I’m sure he meets dozens of people a day, people he could not possibly remember past the very moment of greeting, and I am sure I am one of those people.
The great value of being a columnist, however, is that I can go back and rewrite the historical record:
As I extended my hand to grasp his, he said, “Tell me about your company.”
And I told him how we were almost 100 years old, that we were 400 employees, primarily laymen and women who served the Church in a variety of capacities, producing books, textbooks and magazines, a weekly newspaper, offering envelopes, Web materials and more.
I told him we served teachers and catechists, bookstore owners and ordinary Catholics in the pew, pastors and principals, children and their parents. Our goal was to foster a love of Christ and a love of the Church, and to explain what the Church teaches in words that they will understand. In our own, humble way, we were collaborators with him, part of the People of God, intent on spreading the Good News.
“And tell me about this book,” he asked. And I explained that it was born of a concern for the recent scandals, and how they might impact his own papacy, and that we found that the whole story was not being told in the secular media, and that even Catholics were forgetting how much had been accomplished to prevent future scandals as well as to address past ones. And, most of all, the Church needed to heed his call for renewal as well as reform.
“You and all your collaborators are doing a good job,” he responded. “Thank you.”
Thank you for your leadership, Holy Father, I responded. You are Peter, and a visible sign of unity for all of us.
OK, I’d probably be stretching the truth if I said that we then high-fived each other and did a fist bump, but I’m sure it was something like that. There might not be photos capturing that moment, but that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.