The pope up close

By Elliot Williams

VATICAN CITY — Since arriving at the Vatican to begin my internship at Catholic News Service many a friend from home has asked the same question sarcastically, “So, did you meet the pope yet?”

I play along, and respond with something along the lines of, “Oh, of course! We grabbed cappuccinos at his favorite coffee bar just yesterday.”

 

Pope Francis and President James Alix Michel.

Pope Francis and President James Alix Michel.

While I’ve never actually shared a coffee with the Holy Father, I did have the experience of a lifetime last Thursday when Pope Francis held a private audience with the president of Seychelles.

Pope Francis welcomed Col. James Alix Michel of the Republic of Seychelles into his private library in the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican, where they quietly spoke in both French and English. I know because I was there.

Intermingled with a squad of about 12 photographers and journalists — all pushing and shoving each other for a spot with the best angle — we watched as gifts and words were exchanged between the pope and the president.

A broadcast journalist who traveled from Seychelles to cover the gathering told me this was a very timely meeting because the president is trying to reinstate traditional values of family and spirituality into his predominantly Christian country.

My behind-the-scenes Vatican visit began as I joined the team of journalists and went through the metal detectors in St. Peter’s Square, past the Swiss Guards at the Bronze Doors and into a large hall directly to the right of St. Peter’s Basilica.

Walking up to the Bronze Doors.

Walking up to the Bronze Doors.

We were escorted to the heart of the Vatican — the San Damaso Courtyard, where a troop of Swiss Guards were lined up. After about five minutes of waiting outside the Apostolic Palace, in we went!

Met by Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, we passed countless Swiss Guards, stationed around the palace.

Speaking of Swiss Guards, I’ve never seen so many blue, orange, red, and yellow tailor-made uniforms in my life, all complemented with swords and halberds. The ones who were allowed to make eye contact and talk to us were all very friendly and accommodating. I only wish I’d asked to take a selfie with one of them, which I’ve occasionally seen tourists do.

The process then became very chaotic and confusing, especially for someone who has never been to a meeting so important in his entire life.

President Michel entered with seven fellow politicians, and met Pope Francis in the pope’s private library. We journalists were led through a less obvious hallway to reach the library where we took pictures until the pope and the president’s private meeting began. We crowded around the pope, something I never thought I would do, and observed until the press secretary shooed us out of the room.

President Michel and Pope Francis exchange gifts right in front of me!

President Michel and Pope Francis exchange gifts right in front of me!

Twenty minutes passed, and aides gave us rosaries blessed by the Holy Father before they let us back into the library.

Between the Swiss Guards saluting us at every corner, and the gentlemen escorting us through secret hallways connecting each chamber, I believe I witnessed a part of the Vatican that few people get the chance to see — especially people my age. (Editor’s note: Elliot is 21.)

This world became smaller for me during Thursday’s meeting. Although the pope and the president of Seychelles come from very different places, they seemed to be closely connected through faith.

I doubt I will have the opportunity to scurry through the private halls of the Vatican again before I leave for my home of Philadelphia in two weeks, but this was certainly an important encounter to witness, one that I will take with me and share for the rest of my life.

Elliot Williams is a Communication major at Villanova University. He is originally from Abington, PA, and is studying abroad at Roma Tre University, while interning for Catholic News Service’s Rome bureau. The photos here were taken with a little cell phone since Elliot was a “print only” member of the press pool for the president’s visit.

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