April 27, 2014
The West Texas Catholic: Welcome back from Rome. Let’s start our conversation with some observations about the April 27th Canonization Mass...
Bishop Patrick J. Zurek: As soon as I heard that the two popes were approved for canonization, I decided that I wanted to be present for two main reasons. John Paul II was the pope who appointed me as bishop and he was the one I had met so many times—we have talked about this before. I went with a lot of excitement and enthusiasm to begin with and it was also to be a spiritual pilgrimage for me, not going just as a tourist.
There was tremendous excitement when I arrived in Rome on Tuesday morning, April 22nd. We discovered that the bishops would be able to concelebrate the liturgy, not just be present in choir robes. This excited me even more. As Saturday approached, more and more people were arriving. My routine, when I go to the Vatican, is to go to the tomb of Peter to pray for the needs of the Diocese and my ministry, to the tomb of John XXIII to pray and to the tombs of Paul VI and John Paul II. I did that as I usually do; it was difficult to get around in the Vatican because of the numbers of people, even for a bishop.
Saturday was interesting. When I went out to dinner with some priest friends about three blocks from the Vatican, one of the priests suggested we go the Square. I said we would not even get in the Square because it would already be blocked off. He said that maybe we could get close enough to peak in. We agreed to go. Two blocks from the Square it was like a sea of people; one block from the square people were beginning to camp out. You could not step anywhere—there was a body, legs, arms. They were eating, praying, singing and sleeping. The square would not be open until 6:00 in the morning. I suggested we just go back to the seminary where we were staying.
In the morning we got up early; I left at 7:30 to be there by 8:00. It was fortunate that I did that. The seminary provided a bus for the bishops but I thought it was leaving too late. Those who rode the bus were the last ones in the procession and the furthest away from the altar. Because of the slope, they saw nothing. I was in the third row with bishops from around the world seated around me, which is also exciting. I got to chat with them and find out about the ministry in their area. We were vested, seated there for about two hours prior to the beginning of the liturgy.
Then came another wonderful surprise, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI walked in, fully vested for Mass. He sat with the cardinals in the front row. He seemed very frail, but the excitement and joy on his face were tremendous. Finally the procession began with all the cardinals and Pope Francis. The liturgy was delightful, very formal, very upbeat and very devout. To have been part of that was very exciting and a great privilege. For the first time in the history of the Church, we have canonized two popes as saints in the same liturgy. For the first time we have had a pope presiding and a pope emeritus concelebrating.
It was the only time for me that I attended the liturgy of canonization and it was of a pope whom I had encountered many times in my life. I reminisced about the beauty of who John Paul II was. I only wished at that point that I had also known John XXIII whose vision was tremendous. In his homily, Pope Francis spoke about the popes of mercy, the popes of forgiveness, the popes of compassion, the popes who engendered and enkindled a tremendous hope at times when the world was in dire need of a ray of hope and faith. Both popes used the phrase: Do not be afraid. John XXIII used it as well as John Paul II.
It was a great privilege to be present at the canonization. When we left the liturgy everyone was thoroughly enthused and upbeat. They said that in the Square down the Via della Conciliazione were 500,000 people. The viales, the little streets leading to St Peter’s Square, were packed with another 500,000 people. There were screens so that people could see what was going on. There are also many churches and at communion time the people could actually receive communion. There were also screens along the Piazza de Venezia, a wide avenue toward the Colosseum. They were in the Piazza Navona; I can only guess that they were also in Piazza Popolo and Piazza della Repubblica. The estimate is that there were 3.2 million people in Rome for the celebration. This is a memory that I will treasure for life and I am so glad that I had the common sense to be there.
WTC: While you were in Rome you had an opportunity to meet face-to-face with Pope Francis, not once, but twice!
Bishop Zurek: I had looked forward, for over a year now obviously, to meet Pope Francis. I attended the Wednesday audience. I had planned to be in Rome for two Wednesdays in case one of the general audiences would be cancelled. Although the first one was cancelled, it was reinstated. I arrived early because I was told that even though the audience begins at 10:30, the pope arrives about 9:40 in his popemobile. Not only does he go through the Square, but he stops about every 10 to 20 yards to get out and greet everyone. It seemed that we would not begin by 10:30; it was a miracle that we did.
The love Pope Francis engenders, not just excitement, but a tremendous reverence in his presence. When he began the audience, translations were in about eight languages, with people being presented from different countries. The expectation is that at the end of the audience, the bishops go to greet the Holy Father. There were about 45 bishops and I was fortunate enough to be about number seven. I was wondering what I would talk about, meeting the pope for the first time. I guessed I should introduce myself. So first of all, I asked him in Italian, “Would you like to speak Italian”, “¿o quiere usted hablar español?” He said, “español” so we spoke in Spanish and I told him who I was, where I was from and tried to describe the diocese as quickly as I could. I told him that I was from Amarillo, in Texas, in the United States, and that we are a missionary diocese.
I could tell right away by the expression on his face that I had touched his heart. I told him we have people from 39 language cultural groups; he was impressed to no end.
The majority are probably of Hispanic background. He inquired if they were Mexicans; I answered yes. He replied “Wonderful, wonderful! Just make sure that everyone feels at home.” That’s the same thing Pope Benedict told me the first time I met him.
As we ended our conversation, he asked me, “Would you pray for me?” I said, “Your Holiness, I have prayed for you every day since the election and I have no intention to stop praying even after the Lord takes me.” He smiled and said “good.” Another thing he said, “Remember the great commandment to love God above all things and neighbor as yourself.” He asked me to engender this commandment in the people, to prove our love for God, to show it by the love we have for one another. I said, “Your Holiness, I will absolutely do all that I can.” You could tell by the beauty of his serene smile and his attentiveness that he was totally focused on what I was saying. It did not matter what was happening around him; it was as if I were the only one there.
WTC: Let’s talk about the second meeting with Pope Francis on April 30...
Bishop Zurek: When I was a student in Rome, it was always great to get close enough to the Holy Father to be able to “bacci a mano,” to kiss the ring. You might even be fortunate enough to get the skull cap, the zucchetto, in Spanish “solideo,” that the pope had worn. I have a skull cap from John Paul II that he gave me without asking for it and one from Benedict that a friend got for me.
After the first audience, I thought I would buy a white one and have him touch it on his head so I could say that he had worn it. When I tried to buy one, they said that they would not have any until the next Wednesday, which would be a little too late for me. Tuesday, before the audience, I was walking through the square with some friends shopping for religious goods. I suggested we go to the area of the Pantheon where there are some shops that sell zucchettos. We walked a few more yards and found a new store that had episcopal attire and bought a white zucchetto. It was a little costly, but I bought it knowing I would have to have the courage in front of the Holy Father to ask him.
At the end of the second audience, there were about 100 bishops. I was about number 40 in this one and thought that it would be a chore to even reach him. I took out the zucchetto and held it rolled up in my hand. When I reached the Holy Father, I said to him, “I was here last week, Bishop Zurek from Amarillo and we are a missionary diocese, really poor, but strong in faith. We have great love for Jesus, for His Gospel and for His Holy Church. And, Your Holiness, we have great love and esteem for you and your ministry.”
Then I unrolled the zucchetto in my left hand and told him that my people back home would love to have a remembrance of my encounter with him. I said, “A remembrance of our love for you and your love for us that will also be a visible symbol of your presence in our midst.” He took off his zucchetto and inverted it like a bowl. He asked what the size was, not sure that it would fit. I put my new zucchetto inside his and he said that they looked like they were the same. He said, “You take mine and I’ll take yours.” I could not believe that; all I wanted him to do was to touch it or put it on top of his own on his head and give it back to me.
I was greatly surprised; the genuine smile on his head was so beautiful. When I said in Spanish that we are a missionary diocese, his contentedness and hope that the people are doing well in what they are doing came across. And he was very open to providing the diocese with a remembrance of him. Again he asked that I pray for him. He responded, “Para siempre” (Always). I received another Francis smile.
All popes have their own way of holding hands. Benedict would hold each hand separately. Francis, since I had my hands together in front of me, put his hands over mine for the entire time we chatted. We chatted in Spanish, which he preferred and I was very glad to do that. It was a very memorable encounter with Pope Francis.