Catching the pope in prayer

| Jonathon Liedl | September 11, 2019 | 0 Comments

It was my first full day in Rome. My fellow Twin Cities seminarian Ryan Glaser and I made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, a short walk from the North American College, to catch an early Mass.

Arriving before the crowds, we crossed the threshold into St. Peter’s in all its baroque grandeur. It was hard to focus on anything apart from the magnificent swirl of gold and marble and mosaics, all of it meant to represent the overwhelming glory of God.

But as we made our way toward the sacristy, where we were hoping to join a priest on his way to celebrate Mass at a side altar, my attention was captured by a small, stark spot of white amid the basilica’s splendor. Off to our left, discretely praying by himself, was an elderly man dressed in an all-white cassock and wearing a small white cap.

It took a second or so for me to register what I was seeing. Pope Francis was praying right in front of me. The Holy Father, the earthly head of our Catholic Church, sat 20 yards away from me, surprisingly smaller and more worn looking than he appears on TV, his head lowered in prayer.

Talk about a first day in Rome.

Pope Francis prays at the tomb of Blessed Paul VI in the grotto of St. Peter’s Basilica Aug. 6, the 39th anniversary of Pope Paul’s death. CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano

The pope had no entourage. This was not part of an official program. Aside from a gaggle of other early arrivals who’d spotted him, no one else this side of heaven would see Pope Francis’ morning offering. He sat there in silence, praying in front of what I would later learn was the tomb of St. Pius X, whose feast day it was. And he was still there 30 minutes later when Ryan and I passed by after Mass.

On one level, the data of this experience was insignificant. Of course the pope prays. Seeing him do so didn’t necessarily give me any information I didn’t already have.

But on another level, catching the pope praying in such an intimate, unscripted way was something new and deeper, something that was more meaningful than the mere factual knowledge I’d had before. As Robin Williams’ character in “Good Will Hunting” tells the title character, there’s a profound difference between memorizing the encyclopedia entry of Michelangelo and knowing what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. Likewise, there’s a difference between knowing that the pope prays and then actually witnessing him doing it. The experience inspired me in a way that no newspaper article or Wikipedia factoid ever could.

Seeing the pope in St. Peter’s reminded me of something Msgr. Steven Rohlfs is fond of telling the seminarians back home at The St. Paul Seminary: as a priest, you need to “let your people catch you praying,” for instance, by praying a Holy Hour in the church instead of the rectory.

He wasn’t encouraging us to pray in an ostentatious, self-seeking way. That would violate Christ’s instruction in Matthew 6, to “go to your inner room” when praying, which the Church Fathers taught was a call to pray with heart-felt sincerity, rather than a literal maxim about praying in isolation. As Msgr. Rohlfs would share, allowing his parishioners or high school students to “catch him praying” was often a profound instance of witnessing to the reality of Christ.

And I imagine it’s the same with parents, especially dads. Your kids might know that you pray, but have they ever seen you do it? Have they ever seen you set aside time to engage in genuine, intimate prayer with God? Have your actions demonstrated how essential God is in your life, how real his love and presence are? If not, I imagine it’s hard to communicate to them why God should matter to them. He’s a community of persons, after all, not an abstract idea. No amount of speaking about him can ever substitute for acts of loving him.

Perhaps we can all follow the example of the Holy Father in this instance, by considering how we can let others “catch us praying” — catch us witnessing to the reality of God’s love in our lives by revealing our dependence upon him.

Liedl is a seminarian in formation for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at the Pontifical North American College in Rome.

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Category: To Home From Rome