‘It was worth the wait': Diocesan priest meets Pope Francis Print
Around the Diocese
Thursday, Dec. 27, 2018 -- 12:00 AM
Fr. McEnery and Pope Francis
Fr. Jim McEnery, a priest of the Diocese of Madison, gives Pope Francis music for an “Ave Maria” that he wrote. Father McEnery is observing 65 years as a priest this year. (Contributed photo)

A far-fetched idea of offering Holy Mass with Pope Francis ended up a reality for a Diocese of Madison priest -- plus getting a hug from the Holy Father.

The occasion: Fr. Jim McEnery, a priest of the Diocese of Madison, and his classmate, Fr. Richard Kuhn of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, are observing their 65th year of ordination to the priesthood this year.

A special invitation

After receiving "how-to" advice from some higher-ups in Rome, and a mailing address provided by Msgr. James Bartylla, then vicar general of the Diocese of Madison, and after waiting months and pretty much giving up on the idea, an email from Pope Francis' personal secretary finally arrived. It invited them to celebrate "at the Holy Father's Mass in the chapel of Domus Sanctae Marthae on Monday 12 November next, promptly at 7:00 a.m."

Father Jim could hardly believe his eye. Not much time to prepare meant scrambling for tickets, but soon he and his classmate were on their way, non-stop Miami-to-Rome on Alitalia, economy class.

Arriving in Rome

On Saturday, their driver picked them up at Leonardo da Vinci Airport. Their small hotel, the Residenze Poalo VI, was about 50 feet from the famous Bernini columns, and not much farther from the Cancello de San'Ufficio, where they were to check in on Monday morning.

Many a cardinal and archbishop had signed the guest register of this hotel, including names like Dolan and Listecki, so it seemed to be "the" place to be. (The restaurant is open until 1 a.m. to accommodate concert goers.)

On Sunday, after they and the crowds of tourists had passed through security, the two priests attended a glorious Latin Mass, the Gregorian chant filling every corner of St. Peter's Basilica.

The two left just in time to see Pope Francis at his balcony for his weekly greeting. Talk about cheers! And from mostly younger people. And from around the world.

Arriving at residence

Monday finally arrived. Fathers Jim and Richard were way too early, so a kindhearted Swiss guard offered them chairs in his own office. Others, whose names were also on the list arrived, and they processed to the Domus.

The chapel of St. Martha holds 75 people easily, and it fairly shouts with Cromwellian severity, said Father Jim: no pictures or statues. The simple altar had two candles to one side, a bouquet on the other, and a small crucifix in the middle.

A large wooden cross stood behind the altar, and above it, lettered on the ceiling beam, was the line from the ancient liturgical hymn, "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful."

The pope's chair was to the right of the altar, and the tabernacle was still further to the right. Surrounding the tabernacle was a sunburst of gold metal rays.

Right at 7 a.m., Pope Francis came out from a side sacristy in everyday vestments, bowed to the tabernacle, bowed to the altar, and began Mass.

"He prayed and preached in Latin," noted Father Jim. "With his easy-going manner the sense of agape, of being connected and at one with him in this most holy action, was truly remarkable."

There were no prayers of the faithful and no prayers added after Mass.

Greeting Holy Father

After changing back into their coats and collars, the two priests lined up to greet the Holy Father. Father Jim almost started to cry when he and the pope grasped hands.

Pope Francis asked him how old he was, and hearing he was 91, the pope smiled and said (in fine English), "You're in pretty good shape for that."

"And we're celebrating our 65th anniversary," said Father Jim. And that's when the pope gave Father Jim a hug, along with a word of encouragement.

Father Jim then presented the pope an envelope with an "Ave Maria." "You composed this?" Pope Francis asked.

For some reason, Father Jim answered in Italian, "Si." And the pope said, "Bene."

And that was it. The papal photographer was urging them to break it up; others were waiting.

Father Jim is quite sure the pope will never hear his music played, but just the same . . .

By comparison, everything else that day became ho-hum, even the great Italian food, as well as a tour of the papal gardens.

Well, maybe not the food. And speaking of food, the trip ended up with a very lively dinner with the Diocese of Madison seminarians and recently ordained Fr. Joe Baker. Fr. Tait Schroeder, a Diocese of Madison priest working with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, was their special guest.

"A wonderfully good time was had with these dedicated young men," said Father Jim.

When asked, "So, what do you say about this encounter after those 65 years, including getting a hug from Pope Francis?"

Father Jim replied, "It was worth the wait!"

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