On March 13, 2013, around 12:25 pm, I was standing behind a podium in a classroom at the law school at the University of Colorado in Boulder. I was speaking there at the invitation of the school’s Federalist Society. Unexpectedly, in mid-sentence, my cell phone vibrated. I pulled it out of my pocket, flipped it open, and saw on the screen, “New Pope has been elected.”
It was a text from my wife, Frankie, and was followed by similar texts from my three siblings and a phone call from my parents, who, wisely, don’t text. Seconds later, from the audience, emanated a cacophony of rings, whistles, dings, and bells. I immediately exclaimed: “I think we know who the Catholics are here.”
On the way to lunch with one of the law students, I received a text from my sister Elizabeth. All it said was, “Pope Francis.” I know this may come across as strange, but my eyes began to immediately well up with tears. Not only was my reaction due to the joy of knowing that the Chair of Peter was no longer vacant, but also because Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio had chosen the name that I share with my paternal grandfather, Francis W. Beckwith (1903-1982), and my maternal grandmother, Frances Guido (1913-2002).
As I tell in my memoir, Return to Rome, my grandmother, Frances, was a devout Catholic with whom I lived during my three years of doctoral coursework at Fordham University while I remained separated from the Church as an Evangelical Protestant. It was only years after her death and my return to the Church that I found out that she had approached one of my Fordham professors at a department Christmas party to enlist his assistance in drawing me back to the Barque of Peter. As he explained in a recent email, “I told her that I found you to be a true Christian and that in time Grace will bring you back to our Church.”
Twelve days after I returned from Boulder, I received an invitation from Austin Ruse to participate (along with Robert Royal) in a June 15, 2013 conference held in Rome in conjunction with the celebration of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. This celebration also included a June 16 Mass in St. Peter’s Square, celebrated by the Holy Father.
I immediately accepted. Because my wife and I had never been to Rome, and because I knew very little of how the Vatican operates, I arrived in the Eternal City with no expectations except the typical sort that all novices of all things Roman usually have.
The keynote speaker at the conference was Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura. I have been an admirer of Cardinal Burke for many years. So it was a delight not only to meet him, but to hear an insightful and penetrating talk from a truly learned prince of the Church. My lecture was next, followed by Bob Royal’s outstanding presentation.
The author and the pope
After the event, I was approached by Fr. Geno Sylva, an American priest and official of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, which had sponsored the conference. Fr. Geno told me to meet him the next morning promptly at 8:30 at one of the side entrances to the Vatican. He had arranged for me, along with about twenty-five other conference participants and dignitaries, to personally meet the Holy Father.
When my wife and I arrived at the entrance, Fr. Geno handed me the special “Incontro con il Santo Padre Francesco” ticket, which I firmly clutched in my hand as if my life depended on it. Although I was tempted to put it in my pocket, I had this irrational fear that I would misplace it and that the well dressed, no nonsense, Italian ushers would then forcibly escort me to some medieval dungeon in the basement of the Vatican. (Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit).
Soon after the Mass ended, the few of us privileged to meet the Pope were guided from our seats by those fearsome ushers into a line that began at the foot of St. Peter’s Successor. While processing toward the Holy Father I began thinking about what I should say to him. I immediately rejected the idea that it would be interesting to tell him that the President of the Evangelical Theological Society was called Francis several years before the pope took that name.
When I approached the Bishop of Rome, I shook his hand and said a few words about the sanctity of human life, the importance of the encyclical we were all there to celebrate, and what an overwhelming honor it was for me to meet him.
I also handed him a signed copy of my 2007 book, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press). Not knowing his English proficiency, I pointed to my name on the cover and said, “That’s me. I’m the author.” He then looked right at me, smiled widely, and I reciprocated. The whole encounter lasted no more than fifteen seconds.
While my right hand rested in the right hand of the Holy Father, my left hand was clutching rosary beads that were once owned by my Grandma Frances. Pope John Paul II had blessed them in 2000, the year my parents purchased them in Rome during their visit. After my grandmother died, my mother, her daughter, gave them to me.
Moments after I left the pope’s presence, the whole wonderful irony of it all came rushing through my mind: in bringing those rosary beads back to Rome for my visit with one Francis, the visit itself became an answer to the very prayers uttered on those same rosary beads by another Frances.