During a recent televised video conference hosted by ABC’s 20/20, Pope Francis spoke to several American Catholics who had personal testimonies to share.
Among them was seventeen-year-old Valerie Herrera, a student at Chicago’s Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. She has long struggled with vitiligo—an autoimmune disease that causes blotches on the skin—but didn’t realize how much it would affect her life until she began attending school. There, she was picked on and bullied because of the way she appeared. But her family and faith sustained her during those difficult years, and her love of music provided a refuge from the merciless taunts. Today, she sings in a choir, is preparing for college, and hopes to become a pharmacist.
When Valerie told her story, she paused several times to wipe tears from her eyes. Her emotional pain was visible, but she expressed joy at being able to speak with Francis and to ask him a question: “What are you expecting from us, the youth?” Before replying, Francis surprised her with a request: “Valerie . . . may I ask you to sing a song for me?”
Moved by his words, Valerie needed a moment to compose herself. After looking back at her mother anxiously, hearing her friends cheer her on, and encouraged by Francis’s urge to “be courageous!” Valerie finally began, with a beautiful Marian hymn, “By You.” She sang it in Spanish, but everyone appeared to understand the words:
Together with you, Maria;
Like a child I wish to be;
Take me in your arms,
Guide me along the path
I want you to teach me,
To show me how to pray
Make me be transparent,
And fill me with peace
As soon as Valerie finished, the Chicago audience erupted in applause, as did the pope back in Rome. She smiled as if an enormous burden had been lifted from her, and as if she had been given a new sense of strength and confidence. Valerie’s encounter with Francis was brief, but conveyed the power of a special gift—his ability to change lives through his words of affirmation.
It is a gift Francis is known for.
We remember the Holy Thursday after his election, when Francis traveled to one of Rome’s juvenile detention centers to wash the feet of twelve detainees to symbolize the service and charity of Christ. Though criticized for departing from Church tradition (not doctrine), Francis did so because he wanted to bring hope to sinners scorned by society, and his actions accomplished just that. In 2014, he visited a medical center, and performed the same foot-washing ritual for those who were disabled or elderly. Earlier this year, he continued the new tradition by visiting a prison, telling the inmates:
Jesus never tires of loving. He loves each one of us, to the point that he gave his life for us. Jesus never tires of loving, forgiving, embracing us.
Francis, reported Ines San Martin, “quoted a passage from the Gospel that says God remembers and loves ‘even those forgotten by their mothers.' Before entering the chapel, the pontiff greeted 150 of the 2,100 men and women held in the detention center located on the outskirts of Rome. Among the prisoners gathered in the Church of Our Father were fifteen mothers with their children. Most of those taking part had tears in their eyes during the ceremony.”
During his first Easter Sunday as Pope, Francis stirred similar emotions when he stopped his car in St. Peter’s Square to embrace then eight-year-old Dominic Gondreau, who suffers from cerebral palsy. His father, Paul, who teaches at Providence college, didn’t notice what was happening at first, since his wife and Dominic were seated at a special location for disabled children, with Paul and his four other children further away. But when Francis and Dominic appeared on the large-screen Jumbotron, he witnessed the extraordinary moment which moved so many people. “I will cherish that memory forever,” he said.
And when Francis embraced a man who had been shunned much of his life because of facial tumors, CNN commented that the Pope “was living up to the ideals of his namesake, Francis of Assisi, a preeminent figure who considered himself a servant to the poor and destitute.”
In moving hearts and changing lives, Francis is following in the footsteps of his predecessors, especially St. John Paul II, whose papacy was blessed with similar moments. Perhaps the most unexpected occurred in Los Angeles, during his 1987 visit to America.
Tony Melendez, who was born without arms (and was unable to become a priest for that reason) sang for the pope, while playing the guitar with his feet—which he had learned to do, after years of practice, astonishingly well. Tony sang a song called “Never be the Same” to a packed and mesmerized auditorium. The performance was so beautiful that John Paul spontaneously jumped from his platform, waded into the crowd, and embraced Tony with a hug that electrified the crowd. Returning to the stage, the Holy Father said:
Tony, you are truly a courageous young man, a courageous young man. You are giving hope to all of us. My wish to you is to continue giving this hope to all—to all—the people.
Almost thirty years later, those words from John Paul are echoed not only in Tony’s award-winning career, but in the life and work of Pope Francis.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.