It was a literal brush with greatness that Joseph Day won’t soon forget.
The Providence College junior had a definite plan in mind to meet Pope Francis personally as he headed down to St. Peter’s Square at 6 a.m. last Wednesday to attend a weekly papal audience.
Shortly before leaving for Italy to take part in this semester’s PC in Rome program, Day learned of a custom in which the pope either exchanges zucchetti — the traditional white skull caps worn by the pontiff — with a pilgrim attending one of his audiences, or else places one brought by a visiting pilgrim on his head before returning it to them.
Day, who is from Rehoboth, Mass., and who is a communicant at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in Seekonk, Mass., mentioned this to some of his fellow students in the program, telling them he was planning to bring a white zucchetto to the papal audience in an effort to present it to the pope. Inside, he pinned a small note penned on a square of pink office paper that read “Providence College loves Pope Francis.” Below, the names of several classmates were included.
It would be nearly four hours from the time the group arrived until the moment Day finally had his chance to offer his gift to the pope, but the wait was well worth it. He and his classmates were “ecstatic” at being so close to the pontiff.
“It was such an emotionally charged moment that it is all a blur,” Day said in an e-mail interview with Rhode Island Catholic. “All I know I was yelling ‘Papa, Papa, Papa,’ and reaching over the barrier. It was a moment so full of joy and excitement. My hands didn’t stop shaking for hours.”
When the gates to the Square opened at 7:30 a.m., Day and his friends quickly secured a viewing area in the front right section of seating by the central pathway leading from the obelisk to the steps of the basilica.
Swiss Guards later would fill the path with wheelchairs, which actually served to increase Day’s chances of being noticed, as Pope Francis has shown a special affection for visiting with the infirm.
This was evidenced in large measure earlier this year in another encounter involving the pope and the Providence College community that captured the world’s attention.
Last spring, Pope Francis signaled for the popemobile to stop in order to offer a blessing on young Dominic Gondreau, the 8-year-old son of Providence College theology professor Paul Gondreau and his wife Christiana. Dominic, who has cerebral palsy, smiled as the pope embraced and lifted him above a crowd estimated at 250,000, offering his blessing on the boy. The encounter was captured in a now iconic image that graced the covers of a number of newspapers around the world the next day.
For the Providence College contingent in the Square last Wednesday, the atmosphere was electric and filled with another surprise as they waited for the pope to arrive.
“We were thrilled when ‘Providence College’ was officially welcomed over the loud speakers in the list of English-speaking pilgrim groups. But we never imagined what would come during the pope’s drive around the Square,” said Dr. Aurelie Hagstrom, the Providence College theology professor who is leading the PC in Rome program, in a blog about the group’s site visit to the papal audience that day.
Although Day understood that his chances of his being noticed with his gift and the pope stopping long enough in the crowded square to receive it were slim, his chances were actually much better than they would have been under previous popes.
Following the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II, the use of an enclosed bulletproof popemobile became the norm for him, as well as for Pope Benedict XVI, in their travels among large crowds. As a result, the custom of exchanging zucchetti was usually reserved for private audiences.
But Pope Francis has shown a preference for riding among his outdoor audiences at St. Peter’s in an open popemobile as it makes him more accessible to crowds.
About 9:50 a.m., Pope Francis entered St. Peter’s Square smiling, waving and stopping to kiss babies. Near the end of his audience, the popemobile turned down the pathway in front of the contingent from Providence College. As Pope Francis slowed to visit with those wheelchair-bound in front of them, Day stood up on his chair extending his arms to place the zucchetto within his reach as he yelled, “Papa, Papa.”
The pontiff signaled for his driver to stop, and smiling at the group as he reached out, took the zucchetto from Day, brushing his hand with his own as he did so. Still smiling, the pope peered into the hat reading the note.
“We could see the pure joy and vitality in him as he looked up and said, ‘Providence College,’” Day said.
Then, they saw his simplicity and sense of humor as Pope Francis playfully compared the size of the new zucchetto to the one he was wearing before declaring of the gift, “It’s too big.”
Still, the pope placed the new zucchetto upon his head as he closed his eyes and said a brief prayer before handing it back to Day.
“Words cannot describe what it was like to be so close to the successor of St. Peter, to touch his hand, to have him speak to me, to have him take and wear that zucchetto for a moment before returning it as a gift, blessed for us,” said Day.
“I spent the rest of the audience in a dazed state of joy, cradling the zucchetto in my lap. It was a blessing and a gift, a grace that will remain with me always: my moment with the pope!”
Day, who is considering a career as a high school teacher or college professor, said he developed a special fondness for Pope Francis from the moment he first stepped out onto the loggia at St. Peter’s Basilica after being elected by the College of Cardinals last March.
“His simplicity, his spontaneity, his sense of humor, his joy and his love for his flock has shone forth every day of his papacy,” he said. “All of these qualities were evident in my interaction with him. He was the one who noticed me, who told his driver to stop, who reached out to take the zucchetto. He was all smiles as he read the note that my classmates and I had written to him. He is the perfect example of what it means to be a follower of Christ.”
Day said last week’s encounter with the pope reinforces what he describes as an amazing study opportunity as part of the program in Rome, in which his group has taken classes at some world class sites, including St. Peter’s, the Coliseum and the Forum. Besides taking classes, going on site visits and participating in cultural experiences in Italy, the students also attend public lectures known as Academic Colloquia each month.
“As a Catholic, nothing compares to studying in Rome,” he said.
As for the zucchetto, Day isn’t saying publicly what he is going to do with the special hat, but like on the day he headed excitedly to St. Peter’s to present it to the pope, he does have a plan for it.