In 2013 I studied at the Istituto Maria Santissima Bambina and visited many sites of religious significance. One of the most profound experiences of that trip was my visit to the Catacombs. These are the places where the church was driven underground by the Roman Empire into the cemeteries to worship God.
Later I stood in St. Peter’s Square with people from all over the world to hear the Wednesday address of Pope Francis. He was elected after the resignation of Pope Benedict.
Pope Francis has brought a people oriented focus to the Vatican. I joined with the millions who watched his every step and listened to his every word on his visit to America. His final stop in Philadelphia was broadcasted to the world
Last April Baltimore erupted into a disturbance that was seen nationally and internationally as a symbol of the police brutality and the frustration of people of color and young people who were living with limited options for a viable future. The disturbances after the death of Freddie Gray caused many people to reflect upon the role they unwillingly may have played that contributed to the despair that sparked the burning and looting.
A year later as we move towards the anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray, not much as happened and very little change has occurred.
Archbishop William Lori called together some of his closes collaborators from different faith communities and asked if we would make a prayerful pilgrimage together to visit Pope Francis and asked for his prayers and blessings on our work together in Baltimore. Pope Francis had declared this was the Jubilee Year of Mercy and ordered the Holy Doors to the Vatican and other religious sites to be opened. We agreed on an ecumenical and interfaith pilgrimage of solidarity and spiritual renewal from Baltimore to the Holy City.
Among those who travelled with us were: Imam Earl El-Amin, Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore, Rabbi Steven Fink, Temple Oheb Shalom, The Reverend Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Delaware-Maryland Synod, Archbishop William Lori, Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, Rev. Dr. Frank Reid, III, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Once we arrived at the Vatican, we had a reception with Cardinal Edwin O’Brien who is assigned to protect the religious places in Jerusalem, particularly the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. We were then given a guided tour of St. Peter’s Basilica. Pope Francis has declared this year the Jubilee Year of Mercy and ordered the Holy Doors of St. Peter’s Basilica to be opened. Normally sealed until a Jubilee year is declared, we were able to enter the Basilica through these sacred doors.
In my prior visits the doors were sealed and having this opportunity to walk through these historical and sacred doors added to the profound sense of spiritually this visit afforded. It is difficult to described the majestic feeling one has when you walking into the main hallway of the Basilica. I marveled as I viewed La Pietà, the sculpture by Michelangelo near the entrance by the Holy Door. I knelt in prayer at the altar and viewed the excavated opening in the marble floor of the tomb where the bones of St. Peter are buried under the Basilica. I surveyed the 24 carat inlaid gold pulpit where Pope Francis delivers his homilies.
The next day was our audience with the Pope following his Wednesday address. We were seated in the front row on the right side of the Pope’s pavilion. Pope Francis rode his open top vehicle through the audience in St. Peter’s Square and after he circled the audience, pausing periodically to hold and kiss babies presented to him. He stopped, spoke with, and touched a contingency of people who were bounded to wheelchairs. He dismounted his vehicle and walked up the steps to his pavilion. Before setting in his chair, he waved in our direction, and then proceeded with his message. It was a message of justice and mercy and he spoke in three languages: Italian, German, and French. Interpreters spoke in English and other languages I couldn’t detect.
After his messages the visiting Bishops were presented to him. The stood in line and each had a moment of conversation with Pope Francis. Then, our moment arrived. He walked down from the pavilion and stood in front with two attendants and a film and camera crew nearby. Archbishop Lori and Bishop Madden lead us in twos to meet Pope Francis. On my left was Rev. Dr. Frank Madison Reid III. Archbishop Lori presented me to Pope Francis. I extended my hand to him and he reached for both of my hands. We connected in a deeply spiritual way and he asked me to pray for him. I was stunned and overwhelmed with a spiritual awakening I had never felt before. The successor to the keys of St. Peter had asked me to pray for him. I said I would and I asked him to pray for me. I then presented to him two CD’s: one of Union Baptist Church’s Senior Choir and the other from The Singing Sensations Youth Choir. He gave me a papal coin. And I left our meeting walking a little straighter with my head bowed and praising God for this amazing moment in my ministry life.
I understand even more what it means to practice spiritual presence.
The Rev. Dr. Alvin C. Hathaway is the Senior Pastor at Union Baptist Church in Baltimore.