I was surprised when the Prefect of the Papal household, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, instructed me to sit right next to the Holy Father, on his left. He was just an arm’s length away. The rest of us were seated in a circle around him. I did not see the logic of the sitting arrangement. No hierarchy. The archbishops, bishops and auxiliaries were interspersed with each other. The seat next to the Pope had not been reserved; it just happened to be the last seat available on the left side of the circle; it fell on me.
This Pope really has changed a lot of things in here, I said to myself. I had already noted earlier that the Swiss guards no longer behaved like statues; they looked more relaxed human beings and greeted us warmly with “Buon Giorno” and a salute. They never talked before.
The last time I was in an Ad Limina visit like this, during our group audience with Pope Benedict, we were positioned in rows facing the Pope, according to our ranks in the hierarchy (cardinals on the front row, then the archbishops, followed by the bishops). I was at the very rear end because I was a newly-ordained auxiliary bishop. Back then, the Pope was about twenty feet away from us, seated on a mounted throne. Pope Francis has also replaced the baroque gold-leafed throne with a regular upholstered chair. And we were seated around him in a circle and made to feel more like brother bishops, than as subjects before a king. He allowed us to address him freely without the aid of a microphone. Several brother bishops had raised their hands before me. When I had my turn, I told him I had no question; I just wanted to ask for his prayers.
He looked into my eyes as I spoke. I was surprised when he interrupted me in the middle of my sentence and said, “I want you to know that I know your situation; I know what you are going through. I am praying for you. Please continue.” My eyes blurred with tears when he said that. I had to clear my throat to be able to go on speaking.
After the audience, on our way out, he gave each one of us the traditional gift. I had already given him my personal gift—“El Evangelio del Amor De Acuerdo a Juan/a”, the Spanish version of the second volume of a book I co-authored with Nina Tomen, “The Gospel of Love According to Juan/a”. I had told him that the translation was a labor of love of a fellow-Argentinian of his, Fr Salvador Curutchet. He was delighted to find out that the book was in his mother tongue. He chuckled and said, “We’re like dust, aren’t we? We’re everywhere in the world.” I quickly retorted and said, “So are we, Filipinos, Holy Father.” And he laughed.
On my way out, after I received his gift, I was ready to step out already when he held my arm and said, “Wait. Please let me give you a special blessing. I want you to know I am with you as you face trials in your ministry in your diocese.” Then he extended his right hand to pray over me. He said, “May the Lord keep within you the heart of the Good Shepherd.” Then he pulled me to himself to give me a warm paternal embrace, pressing his head against mine, and brushing his hand gently on my back as he whispered into my ears, “Courage!” My heart melted after that. I just said, “Thank you, Holy Father.”
I felt like I had been embraced by Peter himself in his successor, Francis, whose ministry is to confirm his fellow apostles in faith, all over again.
Luke 22:31-32 “Simon, Simon, behold Satan has demanded to sift all of you like wheat, but I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must confirm your brothers.”