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Meeting Pope Francis

  • 25 January 2016

41 years a Jesuit, I had never met a pope.

Back in 1986, I was adviser to the Australian Catholic Bishops on Aboriginal land rights. Pope John Paul II came to Alice Springs, met with Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, and spoke strongly about the rights of Aborigines to retain title to their traditional lands.

Next day, a bishop told me the amusing story that the Pope had arrived at Alice Springs airport where he had mistaken Wagga's Bishop William Brennan for me. Bishop Brennan was very gracious about the matter when we embraced during the sign of peace at mass.

Some years later I did some work for the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace in Rome. After one meeting, the President Cardinal Roger Etchegaray invited me to stay in Rome and to concelebrate mass with the Holy Father at a major event in St Peter's Square the following Sunday.

I did not see any reason to change my Saturday flight. As I sat on the floor to celebrate mass with the staff of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Bangkok that Sunday morning, I told them that I knew where I would prefer to be.

On arrival in Rome two weeks ago to prepare for the Global Foundation's roundtable on 'Rejecting the "globalisation of indifference": mobilising for a more inclusive and sustainable global economy', the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy QC, asked if I would like to meet the Pope. Without the slightest hesitation, I said I would.

The ambassador organised a ticket for me to attend the regular Wednesday papal audience with thousands of other pilgrims. But he assured me I would be in the front row with a good chance of meeting my Jesuit colleague with the name 'Francis'.

The audience was due to commence at 10am. I arrived about 20 minutes early. The Pope was already working the room, moving through the crowd towards his white upholstered throne. By 9.45am, he was ensconced, painstakingly reading his initial catechesis for the Year of Mercy. He finished his delivery by 10.05am. I spared a thought for the pilgrims who were arriving just on time. Then followed half an hour of monsignori reading translations of the Pope's remarks in various languages.

By 10.45 the Pope had greeted the bishops and monsignori on stage who had gathered for their photo opportunities. Francis started descending the stairs and I thought the event rather underwhelming.

But Francis did not beat any