Once in a lifetime: My lunch with Pope Francis was a transformational experience


noriega_popeBy Brenda Noriega

 During World Youth Day 2019 in Panama, I had the blessing to have lunch with Pope Francis. I am still waiting to wake up! 

 The truth is that I am still unwrapping the experience, my blessing from heaven. One of the biggest blessings about that lunch was to now be connected with nine other wonderful young brothers and sisters from all over the world. We clicked the moment we met. I instantly functioned as the translator since I was the only fluent bilingual person in the room. I had the blessing to be a bridge between two languages, Spanish and English.

We were all so happy to meet each other that five minutes after being introduced to each other, we created a WhatsApp group chat. Praise God for technology. We believe Our Lady brought us together. We prayed the Hail Mary many times in a period of two hours while we were waiting to be transported to the place where lunch would take place. 

 The moment I saw Pope Francis, I felt the desire to hug him (yes, I’m a hugger), and I felt so much peace that I couldn’t contain my tears. I couldn’t believe I was kissing the hand of the successor of St. Peter, the Vicar of Christ. It was surreal to see in person with my own eyes the Pope with black shoes. The Holy Father is the same person both on and off camera. He is humble, peaceful, joyful, assertive, pastoral, wise, knowledgeable, and even handsome.

 The lunch was truly like a family reunion. It was casual and full of laughter and excitement. No cameras and no bodyguards, it was just us and Pope Francis. As soon as we sat at the table, I asked the Holy Father about his trip to which he answered, “What if we introduce ourselves first?” He really wanted to know who we were. At the table were: Angeline from Burkina Faso, Bedwin from India, Dalia from Nicaragua, Dana from Palestine, Dennis from Australia, Emilda from Panama (representing all the indigenous young people of the world), Luis from Panama, Miguel from Venezuela, Miguel from Spain and I. 

 When the time for questions came, my brain started formulating many but my heart knew that I was there to represent the voices of the young people and ministers of my country. In 30 seconds, I remembered the different conversations I’ve been having with young people and ministers in my community in the last few months and most would point to a difficult heartbreaking topic, the sexual abuse scandal. I knew I had to ask, I was nervous, and I hesitated for a second, but I had to do it because it was not only my voice but the collective. 

 My exact question was “Holy Father, in the United States, we are going through a crisis as you know, our young people are losing hope in the Church due to the sexual abuse scandals and it is being difficult for our good priests and bishops since the people are losing trust. How can we, those who minister to young people, bring hope back to our communities and how can we accompany our priests and bishops?” 

 Pope Francis stopped eating, put his fork down and looked into my eyes. I saw in his eyes that he was grieving with us. The Holy Father said he wanted to be honest and transparent with us. He didn’t want us to walk out with any questions about the issue. He started putting the social issue of sexual abuse into context, giving statistics but clarifying that even if it was only one case, it was still “monstruoso” (horrible). He proceeded, saying that we need to accompany the victims. When he talked about the victims, his voice and eyes were full of compassion and pain. He looked at each one of us and asked us to be with the victims. 

 He told us “before any committees, before any planning, we must pray, always pray.” He was clear, sexual abuse is “monstruoso” and we must address it but not only within the Church but in society as well since “more than 50 percent of cases do not come out to the light.” 

 In one hour, Pope Francis shared so much wisdom with us. Regarding the young people leaving the Church, he said “ponganlos a trabajar” (put them to work). He indicated that when young people can put their gifts into practice, they find purpose. The Holy Father exhorted us to talk to our elders and get their wisdom. He said we need to work together, the young and the elderly. Pope Francis urged us to be like trees, well rooted in our identity because the trees with short roots dry out. This was very important for me coming from a country with a diverse community. I was born and raised in Mexico and it is easy to lose sight of who I am living in the United States and being expected many times to assimilate and become a little more “American.” This also took me to think about our Catholic identity. I think Pope Francis was inviting us to be strong in our faith and Christian values. He asked us to be involved in the social issues of our countries and in politics, being prophetic voices. That to me is part of being like a well rooted tree. 

 At the end of our time with him, he gifted us a statue of Our Lady of Promptitude. He said we needed to be like Mary, willing to say yes but always on the way bringing Christ to the world. He asked us to be “siempre apurados, nunca cansados” (always in a hurry, never busy). The fact that he gave us Our Lady of Promptitude means a lot to me because she represents Mary on her way to see Isabel, ready to serve and be present. 

 I walked out of that lunch with a sense of urgency. Some of the Holy Father’s phrases are stocked in my mind and heart: “be like rooted trees,” “before anything pray,” “care for each other,” “always in a hurry and never busy,” “be joyful,” “put them to work,” “you are the now.” Pope Francis really lives what he preaches. He made time to be with us, the young people, breaking bread. He was like a father to us in that moment and he took the time to explain difficult topics. Most importantly, Pope Francis has modeled to us how to be always in a hurry, and never busy. There is no time to waste. This experience has transformed me as a minister and as a Catholic. I was committed to serving God and his people but I now have this sense of urgency in my heart. 

 Brenda Noriega is Young Adult Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of San Bernardino.