December 2, 2019

Meeting Pope Francis

Meeting Pope Francis

From November 7 to 9, 2019, OCP composer and author Ken Canedo attended “Church, Music, Interpreters,” a sacred music conference at the Vatican sponsored by the Pontifical Council on Culture. Pope Francis delivered the closing talk, and attendees were given an opportunity to meet him. Below is Ken's account of the event.


We were gently warned that although the agenda of our conference included a private audience with Pope Francis, there was no guarantee that it would actually happen, depending on his schedule (that Saturday was the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica, the Pope’s cathedral as the Bishop of Rome), and on how he was feeling that morning. Our anticipation was therefore tempered by the possibility of disappointment, and understandably so.

Nevertheless, conference attendees were noticeably dressed to the nines that morning. The ladies wore tasteful dresses, the men were in dark suits and ties, and the priests wore their cassocks. Former NPM President Rick Hilgartner looked quite dashing in his monsignor cassock with bright purple buttons and piping. We attended the Saturday morning presentations nonchalantly, and nobody really spoke of the possibility of a papal encounter. Then, at 10:30, electricity filled the air when one of the conference emcees took the microphone and said in English and Italian, “We’re going upstairs now to the Apostolic Palace. Please leave your coats and notebooks here in the conference room.”

We were escorted through the Vatican’s maze of endless hallways and staircases — flights and flights of stairs! I’m convinced that these long upward climbs were designed to give the bishops and cardinals daily exercise. But because of the slick marble steps, I had to carefully hang onto the rails for safety. One slip in this large crowd, and several people might go tumbling down like ecclesial bowling pins.

Our group trudged up the stairways with quiet, but eager, anticipation. The presence of the Swiss Guard, in full colorful regalia, was an indication that our destination was near. We were ushered into the Sala de Consistero, a bright and intimate room with 200 plush chairs set up auditorium style. The walls were ornately decorated in baroque style, of course. Is there such a thing as a blank wall at the Vatican? I was unsure where to sit but, as usual, Reverend Virgil Funk found his way to the front and motioned me toward him. Somehow, he sneaked his way into the second row, behind a row of bishops and monsignors. I felt unworthy, but if anyone asked me how I ended up sitting so close to the podium I would simply say, “I’m with Father Funk.”

There was a low, reverent buzz in the room. People were talking quietly, like in church. I chuckled to myself at that thought. Here at the Vatican, every room is in church. As we waited, I started getting fidgety, and I was slightly hyperventilating. I would soon meet the Vicar of Christ! I calmed myself the only way I knew — by praying the rosary. The Joyful Mysteries seemed most appropriate, and the repetition of Hail Marys was truly the music whose charms soothed this savage Catholic beast.

A tuxedoed protocol official distributed a printed handout of the Holy Father’s upcoming remarks, translated in English since he would be addressing us in Italian. I read it quickly and marveled at the depth of his wisdom and compassion. And then suddenly, through a side door, Pope Francis entered. We stood on our feet and applauded. I was a bit surprised because I thought he might process down the middle aisle from the back, but he entered casually and looked out eagerly at our group with that wonderful smile of his.

We took our seats and Cardinal Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council on Culture, presented our group to the Holy Father, who listened attentively from his simple chair, which was not a throne and not ornately decorated. I’m not sure what the cardinal said (it was in Italian), but it must have been good because everyone applauded as Pope Francis embraced him. Then the pontiff turned to us and shared his reflections on music ministry.

The interpreter of music has much in common with the biblical scholar, with the proclaimer of God’s word, but also with those who seek to interpret the signs of the times, and, even more generally, with all those — and each of us should be one of them! — who are open and attentive to others in sincere dialogue. Every Christian, in fact, is an interpreter of the will of God in his or her own life, and by his or her life sings a joyful hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God. Through that song, the Church interprets the Gospel as she makes her pilgrim way through history. The Blessed Virgin Mary did this in an exemplary way in her Magnificat, while the saints interpret the will of God by their lives and mission…

You can read Pope Francis’ complete address here.

It was a very warm and affirming talk. His remarks concluded, it was now time for each of us to meet the Holy Father. The row of bishops and monsignors in front of me greeted him first, including Msgr. Hilgartner. I took a deep breath as I walked slowly up the reception line. What does one say to the Vicar of Christ on Earth? The protocol official advised us to be brief. Virgil said I should introduce myself, where I’m from, and what I do. I think I said all that, and I also asked the Holy Father to pray for me and my family and friends. I am actually cloudy on what exactly I said. I now understand how Saint Peter felt when he encountered Jesus, Moses and Elijah on Mount Tabor during the Transfiguration. Peter was basically so in awe that he could only babble off at the mouth.

What I remember the most is how the Holy Father warmly grasped my hand, smiled, and looked directly into my eyes in an exchange of love and respect that relied not on words but on genuine presence. It is really difficult to explain, but for me, that brief moment will last forever. I feel as if my life has changed, and my encounter with the Holy Father will lift me up at those times when I am feeling lost or alone or unworthy. Pope Francis looked into my heart and saw how much I love Jesus. I looked into his eyes and saw the face of Christ.

God is so good.


Photo: Servizio Fotografico Vaticano