Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash

Luke Stocking: ‘I will be with you’

  • January 29, 2022

We arrived in the Eternal City with the dawn. On the in-flight screen, as we flew through the darkness, I could see the sun racing towards us. It reached Rome the same time as we did.

This is my first time in Rome. I am here with my wife, my younger teen and Mgr. Pierre Goudreault, Bishop of Ste. Anne-de-la-Pocatiere and member of the executive of our National Council. We are here in advance of our Orientation Assembly to build relations with the dicastery for the promotion of integral development, with Caritas Internationalis, and with CIDSE (a network of Catholic agencies).

The imagery of meeting the dawn is special for me. Anyone who reads the Catholic media will know that Development & Peace – Caritas Canada, where I work, has had its share of challenges these past years. But thanks to lots of hard work and Pope Francis’ synodal vision for the Church, the dawn is upon us.

We have a renewed relationship with our bishops. We have a new executive director set to start in February. We have an Orientation Assembly that will take place in June 2022. The Assembly will gather more than 150 members from each diocese of Canada, along with partners from the global north and south, Canadian clergy and religious. Together we will set our strategic directions for the next five years and ensure that our mission is up to the immense task of caring for our common home in the face of existential threats to our place on the planet.

There are not enough words in this column to describe the experience of walking into St. Peter’s Square for the first time. The majesty of the beating heart of our Catholic Church simply overwhelms me. We pray at the tomb of St. Peter, the rock on which our Church is built. From that rock I feel the embrace of the columns around the square, reaching out to entire world. Here you feel the universality of our Church. Pilgrims from a hundred different countries, speaking a hundred different languages, all in that universal embrace.

Our meetings go well! The exchanges are fruitful and remind me the importance of person-to-person relationship building during this age of Zoom. The most important meeting comes on Wednesday. We have special tickets to the general audience with Pope Francis. That morning we meet Mgr. Goudreault, dressed in bishop’s attire. A humble man, Mgr. Goudreault is a bit embarrassed by the attention his dress affords him. The rest of us enjoy watching the Swiss guards snap to attention though. We proceed through the entrance to the Vatican that leads to the Pope Paul VI audience hall. Having watched many events here online, it is awe-inspiring to be in front of Fazzini’s 80-tonne sculpture, La Resurrezione, awaiting the Holy Father.

Suddenly, without any fanfare, Pope Francis enters the hall through the door from the left. I understand now why people rise to their feet on such occasions. The joy simply lifts you up. I feel a welling of emotion. His catechises is focused on St. Joseph as a Father in tenderness. With my wife and child beside me, the message is especially touching. “Tenderness is something greater than the logic of the world. It is an unexpected way of doing justice,” he says.

There is much formality (and many languages!) as part of a general audience. At certain times we see Pope Francis rub his eyes and look at his watch. I wonder at his tiredness. It is quite a schedule for an 85-year-old man. But when the time comes at the end to meet the people, he comes alive!

We expected that people would come to meet him in his chair. The bishops do this and Mgr. Goudreault is the first to greet him. But then, Pope Francis descends from the stage and comes to meet the people where we sit! This is striking for me — he comes to us.

At special moments in one’s life, time gets a little funny. One minute we are watching him greet the others, and the next, Pope Francis himself is right in front of us! He blesses our family and shakes our hands. “Je serai avec vous,” he tells us — “I will be with you.” The Pope will be with us soon in Canada. It is a message that warms our hearts. I had rehearsed what I wanted to say a thousand times. In the end I could only get the first words out of my mouth through a sea of emotion, “Gracias. Gracias.”

(Stocking is Deputy Director of Public Awareness & Engagement, Ontario and Atlantic Regions, for Development and Peace.)

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