Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., reflects on ‘incredible meeting’ with Pope Francis


Thanksgiving Day 2019 was a day the bishops of Region III had eagerly anticipated.  At 9 a.m., we made our way to the Apostolic Palace for our ad limina meeting with the Holy Father.  Greeted by members of the Swiss Guard and other personnel of the Holy See, the bishops walked down the long corridors of the palace, adorned with frescoes of scenes from the Church’s history, toward the Clementine Hall, where the Pope would receive us.  We were informed by one of the papal staff that the Holy Father had two audiences scheduled before ours.

Photo Gallery: Bishop's 2019 ad limina visit to Rome

Photo Gallery: Region III bishops' ad limina visit

At 10:30 a.m., the bishops and their seminarians studying in Rome along with priests who had accompanied their bishops were escorted through a series of smaller salons to meet the Pope.  As we walked, I was amazed to see original paintings I had only seen in books and here, the works of Titian, El Greco, Caravaggio, etc., adorning the walls.  Although I had been here twice before, I was still overwhelmed by the majesty yet simplicity of it all. 

Then the moment arrived.  Through the final open door, we could see the iconic white zucchetto (skull cap) on Pope Francis’ head.  Each bishop came forward to greet the Holy Father and then, by turns, introduced his companions.  I expressed the greetings and love of the clergy, religious and faithful of the Diocese and felt such happiness presenting Msgr. Thomas Gervasio, vicar general; Father Carlo Calisin, master of ceremonies, and Father Juan Daniel Peirano, canon law student at Gregorian University in Rome, to the Pope.  Father Carlo remarked, “I had something all planned to say, but when he looked at me, I couldn’t speak.”  After the customary photographs and exchange of gifts, the bishops were asked to take their seats while their guests left the room.

The Holy Father was alert and energetic, given his recent return from Thailand and Japan.  He led us in prayer and warmly welcomed us, expressing Thanksgiving greetings along with his personal appreciation that we were spending this “great American day” with him.  He graciously told us where we could find water or use the facilities, starting things off in the typical courteous manner for which he is known.

The Pope did not have a prepared text but indicated that he wanted our conversation to be a “free” and informal dialogue.  “Tell me whatever you want, ask any question, share advice, even give criticism.  It is not a sin,” he joked, adding, “in here.”  The Pope spoke in Italian with immediate translation provided by an Irish priest. 

Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, metropolitan of the New Jersey bishops, initiated the conversation followed by Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, metropolitan of the Pennsylvania bishops.  As the Holy Father responded most candidly to our questions, he asked that we keep our dialogue “fraternal” and “just in this room.”  The meeting lasted 2½ hours.  I was amazed at the Pope’s breadth of knowledge of Region III, his frankness and humility, and his openness on so many topics.  It was an incredible meeting.

To conclude the meeting, the Holy Father led us in prayers in Latin, gave us his blessing and greeted each bishop personally, presenting him with a beautiful gift and rosaries to share with family and friends.  There was absolutely no doubt about the Pope’s love for us and for the Church.  He came across as a pastor, a father, a brother and a friend.

Upon leaving the Apostolic Palace, the bishops all remarked how encouraged and inspired they felt as a result of our meeting with Pope Francis.

I caught up with Msgr. Gervasio, Father Carlo and Father Peirano for lunch at Arlu Restaurant on the Borgo Pio, down the street from the Vatican Gate of St. Ann.  I know the family that owns the place and it was a joyful – and delicious – reunion!  The best carbonara in town!

We then headed up to the Pontifical North American College (PNAC) for Thanksgiving Day Mass with the seminarians.  Bishop James Checchio of the Diocese of Metuchen, who is the former rector of PNAC, presided at Mass.  A festive American Thanksgiving dinner followed in the seminary refectory (dining room), with all the traditional elements including pumpkin pie.  It was a joy to be with the seminary community and their other guests, who included ambassador to the Holy See Mrs. Callista Gingrich and her husband, former speaker of the House Mr. Newt Gingrich.