by TAYLOR BRETHAUER & TARA MARIN, Editor in Chief & Senior Writer
It’s not something you see every day: Manhattan College’s very own Father Tom, shaking hands with Pope Francis. The picture popped up on the timeline of many student and faculty Twitter timelines recently. Father Tom had traveled to the Vatican, which explained his absence from Sunday evening mass the week prior.
Father Tom is a member of the Missionaries of Mercy, a group of priests that the Pope called together during the Jubilee Year of Mercy. There are 1,200 members around the world.
“We had special permissions to hear confessions and to forgive sins that were reserved to the Holy Father normally. So this group acts on the Pope’s behalf around the world, and also to preach about the idea of mercy, have days of recollections, and get the world out about God’s love and mercy in the world,” he said.
After the Jubilee Year ended, Pope Francis saw the value in the ministry and asked some of the priests to continue, and Father Tom was one of the 895 priests who had their faculties continued, many of which are in Europe. In the United States, Father Tom is one of 150 priests who are members of the Missionaries of Mercy, and one of three in New York State.
Going into the trip, Father Tom was hopeful about meeting Pope Francis, but wasn’t sure if he was going to get the chance.
“They didn’t tell us how many people were going to be in Rome, so I thought it would be a couple hundred. We started on Divine Mercy Sunday with Pope Francis, and there were 500 of us there, so I said, ‘okay it’s a big group’ and I figured we were not actually going to meet him individually, but some people might,” he said.
Luckily, Father Tom was wrong—Pope Francis wished to meet with all 500 priests that day.
“On the day we met with him, he spoke for an hour and when he ended his talk, the head of the council told us that he wanted to meet us all individually. So we each got a chance to greet him,” Father Tom said.
Father Tom reflects on their few moments together with fondness and thankfulness.
“It was phenomenal. He spoke to us all in Italian, and my Italian is not great, but we had translators. I thanked him in Spanish, and he thanked me in Spanish, which was helpful. I wanted to express my gratitude for the things he was doing for the church and the world, and his response back was thanking me and all of us for helping to carry out his message.”
Father Tom left the interaction feeling “awestruck, humbled, and honored.”
In the Pope’s speech to the 500 members prior to meeting them, he emphasized the importance of “mercifying” the world. Father Tom explains: “He was really continuing what the theme of the Jubilee Year was about, and a theme in his Papacy. He takes the word ‘mercy’ and makes it into a verb—he says it’s about ‘mercifying’ the world, so bringing that sense of God’s mercy as an active principle for people to experience and to know. He spoke to us about making sure we have that feeling for ourselves and encouraging us to find ways to keep being the presence, and providing that insight and support for people, knowing that that’s the way God wants us to relate to him.”
Two days prior to meeting Pope Francis, Father Tom heard him speak in St. Peter’s Square, which was a humbling experience in itself.
“I didn’t go into the whole experience thinking it would be as emotional as it was, but then even on Divine Mercy Sunday, the first full day we were there, there was a huge mass in St. Peter’s Square. At the end of the mass he went off-script—it’s always a little more interesting to hear what he says off-script—and sadly, it was right when the incidents in Syria were really boiling up. In the midst of his comments, he encouraged everyone to pray for those who are facing the violence and struggling, and then he also pointed out our little group to the side and thanked us. And it just felt really personal. You know, it was sort of a realization that this was an important thing for him and his vision of the Church, so having a sense of gratitude for that, really feeling like it’s an opportunity to be a part of something that he wants to see happen,” Father Tom said.
Father Tom also reflected on what he admires Pope Francis for most.
“I think that he’s trying to really bring a human experience to the church. It’s hard being in a position like his, when you’re filled in this realm of ceremony and decrees, trying to make sure people realize that even though the church is this major institution, that there are a lot of these teachings that are important in finding this one-on-one contact with God. What makes his papacy special is that he teaches the church and fills it with knowledge and history and awareness, but all of that is meant to be at the service of people’s experience with God, not the other way around. It’s oriented towards finding that faith and living it, rather than the structures, and the rules, and everything else.”
Father Tom was the only person affiliated with Manhattan College to go on this trip, but he returned from it with a deeper understanding of how he wants to bring the Pope’s message to our campus.
“One of the big parts of the trip, along with the ministry of confessions, was spreading this message about letting people have this feeling that they can find their relationship with God, or come back to it if it’s been awkward or off-putting. So I think one of our major actions is having mission days, retreat days, days of recollection. I think with the upcoming year I’d hope to start implementing those kinds of opportunities to celebrate the sacraments, but also to experience that relationship. I think it’s so important for students in these college years to have a relationship with God that’s their own,” Father Tom said.