Students in the Catholic University School of Canon Law had a unique opportunity to spend time with Pope Francis in March, during a study abroad trip to Rome over Spring Break. The 17 students — led by Professor Kurt Martens — were spending time in Vatican City to learn about the inner workings of the Church.
“We were visiting the various congregations of the Church, which we do every other year,” Martens said. “I take a group of students to visit those offices of the Roman Curia so they can see who they interact with. By visiting the offices, the theory of canon law becomes practical, they can see faces, and learn how to present cases there.”
On the group’s last day in Rome, Martens and the students met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, to discuss topics related to the American Church and Vatican diplomacy. Cardinal Parolin said that he would try to arrange a time when the group could meet with Pope Francis. Then, only a few hours later, Martens received a call from Cardinal Parolin saying the Pope could see them that afternoon.
At the time, Martens and the group were getting ready to go to Mass at the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, where they would be joined by Callista Gingrich, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See.
"I had to explain to the driver, we have to make a detour to go into the Santa Marta [the papal residence],” Martens said. “Before we knew it, we were in Santa Marta waiting for the Holy Father to enter.”
Kelly Schaffer, a second-year canon law student from Toledo, Ohio, remembers how exciting it was to hear they would be meeting with Pope Francis. She and her classmates did not know they would be meeting him until they were already on the bus driving to his residence.
“We were on the bus and we heard Dr. Martens say where we were going,” she said. “It felt like, ‘Did I just hear him say that?’ We were all freaking out.”
After running through security, Schaffer said she was surprised to find that her group was completely alone with the Pope.
“He came in, shook everyone’s hand, and Dr. Martens explained who we were in Italian,” she said. “I had to keep reminding myself that it was real. I was standing pretty close to him, but it felt surprisingly natural. He made us feel very comfortable.”
During their brief meeting, Pope Francis advised the students to study hard and to always look at the roots of Church laws to fully understand why he and other leaders legislate the way they do.
The Pope also led the group in prayer, asking them to say a Hail Mary and giving them a blessing.
Canon law student Sister Rose Marie Timmer said the encounter was “delightful” and that the Holy Father was “humorous, joyful, and pastoral.” She was particularly moved when he explained the significance of an image hanging in the room of Our Lady, Undoer of Knots.
“He told us to be mindful of bringing the knots of our lives — our anxieties, the burden of our sins, and our cares — to this Mother of Fair Love,” Sister Rose Marie said. “We should not attempt to undo them ourselves lest we pull on them such that they become harder to untie, but rather entrust them to her who by her serene gaze gives loving attention to undoing each one.
“The Holy Father encouraged us to turn to her often so that she may, through her intercession, liberate each one of us from the knots that seek to bind us and keep us from her Son,” she said.
Rev. Christopher R. Seibt, of the Diocese of Syracuse, said the entire private meeting was “relaxed and comfortable, and inspiring.”
“It was not only an unexpected surprise but also a gift to all of us at the end of a very enlightening time in Rome during which we learned how the Curia serves the needs of the Pope and the mission of the Church,” he wrote in a reflection for his diocesan paper, The Catholic Sun.
Schaffer said she was newly motivated in her studies after spending the week in Rome and meeting the many people who keep the Church operating.
“I think this has given me a renewed sense of purpose with my studies. Having the Holy Father tell me to study hard helps,” she said. “Even if we hadn’t met Pope Francis, this trip would have been an unbelievable opportunity. I never could have imagined that I’d be able to do this.”