It was an honour to be invited into the Pope’s presence, writes Presbyterian minister Steve Stockman 

Stocki and Pope

Last week I was ushered in to a private audience with Pope Francis in the Apostolic Palace in Rome. That is an unbelievable sentence for a Ballymena Presbyterian to write. 

It is not every day that you get to meet the Pope. Even less chance if you are a Presbyterian minister. Yet, that is exactly what my wife Janice and I did. It was very moving and inspirational.

I have no doubts that many in my denomination and other Protestants will call me a heretic! But I believe Pope Francis is a fellow follower of Jesus, and my meeting with him has cemented that belief. As the Archbishop of Canterbury says, if we concentrate on what we believe we will find things that divide us, if we concentrate on who we believe then we will find ourselves together in Jesus. 

I have been particularly drawn to Pope Francis’ humility and efforts to live outside the ostentatious ways of the Vatican. I have heard he even goes out in plain clothes to meet the homeless. I am also impressed by his seeking of justice, working for peace and reconciliation and his very strong support for protecting the environment. These are all biblical mandates that I can shake his hand over, even if he is the head of a different denomination. 

The trip

We woke up to Rome on a Bank Holiday. It was buzzing and crowded. Arriving in St Peter’s Square, it was already filling up. All day long people were queuing up to just get into St Peter’s Basilica. Quite a bombardment of stimuli. Soon though, we were out of the maddening crowd and ascending the stairs in the Apostolic Palace to empty rooms and finally reaching Pope Francis’ private library.

Janice, Steve, Pope and Fr Martin

Stockman with wife Janice, Pope Francis and Fr Martin Magill

My dear friend Fr Martin Magill and I were there in recognition of our work with the 4 Corners Festival, which seeks to inspire people from across Belfast to transform it for the peace and wellbeing of all. 

We reached the library with the Catholic Chaplaincy from Queen’s University Belfast, and there was Pope Francis to welcome us.

As he reached to shake my hand, I leaned in and told him that I was a Presbyterian. He took my other arm and kindly welcomed me even more. 

Pope Francis has a warmth about him. He has a humility that is perhaps not expected of Popes or world leaders. Very quickly I sensed that all that I had thought about him was true. He has an open and gracious heart. He is keen to make you at ease, to feel special. There’s a Christlikeness to him.

I believe Pope Francis is a fellow follower of Jesus, and my meeting with him has cemented that belief

He is also funny. He had given us his written script but quickly told us we could read that later, and instead ask him questions. That is a brave decision - handing over control to whatever questions are thrown. He has to be sharp and think quickly to answer. But it was no problem - his answers were wise and full of great biblical content. 

He told us to get ourselves a little book of the Gospels. Have it in our pockets. Read it when opportunities came. Then most of all, he told us, wear it. If we want to share it with our friends we shouldn’t go around preaching at them. He said that the soul is moved by witness. Live the Gospel out in our lives.

Perhaps it was because there were a couple of Presbyterians in the room, but he also shared about being out walking with his grandfather at the age of 5 and bumping into two women from the Salvation Army. He said it was his first ecumenical moment. He encouraged the Catholic students present to see their Protestant friends as brothers and sisters in Christ.

He talked about how we should send all the theologians out onto an island where they could debate the theological differences while the rest of us stayed in the real world and got on with it. That ‘it’ was very clearly the living out of the Gospel, working together in Kingdom building, justice and peace.

Authentic witnesses

Near the end, I thanked the Pope for his message to our 4 Corners Festival and how amazing it was to have his message open this years festival and then having Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, to close it. This gave him the opportunity to speak fondly about his brother Justin Welby and their working together for peace in South Sudan. Pope Francis told us that he was keen to meet the South Sudan leaders in July but refused to respond to their invite until Justin Welby was invited on an equal footing to himself. That humility again. That working together.

I am sure many will not agree with me visiting a Pope in the Vatican. I will graciously understand and beg to differ. For me it was an honour that Pope Francis recognised the work that 4 Corners Festival does. It was an honour to be invited into his presence. Yet, I did not feel that I had met with some head of Church as much as an elder in the faith, someone ahead of me in the journey who could impart wisdom and inspiration. 

I know that I will unpack that hour in the Apostolic Palace for some time, pulling out everything said. The most vital thing I take away is his challenge to wear Jesus, be an authentic witness to Christ. To be as humble and human and redeemed as he obviously is. 

As we left he asked that I would pray for him. I heard from a Belgian priest outside that Francis has arthritis in his knees and is in some pain. I told him I would pray for him, especially his knees. He thanked me and I was gone… ready to continue to follow the same Jesus my brother Francis follows.