In ‘a High point of [his] life,’ Fr. Sundborg has Private Meeting with Pope Francis

Last December, Seattle University trustee Jeff Wright received a special request from his mother regarding her Christmas gift – she wanted to meet the pope. Within a year, President Fr. Stephen Sundborg, S.J., traveled to the Vatican City with Wright and his family to meet Pope Francis. Sundborg returned with a positive impression of the pope and some advice for Seattle U students.

S: I understand that you were asked to help arrange a meeting with Pope Francis by an SU trustee, whose mother told him she wanted to speak with the pope. How confident were you that you would be able to set up such a meeting?

FS: Well, the way it happened was that, the trustee, Jeff Wright, asked his mother last Christmas what she wanted for Christmas, and she said she wanted to meet the pope. So he [Wright] came to me eventually and he said, “I would like my mom to meet the pope.”

I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is impossible, I’ve never heard of anything like this ever happening, I have no idea if I can be of any help. It seemed like a longshot, but I said I would try my best. So, I wrote to the international head of the Jesuits, his name is Adolfo Nicolas. I wrote a personal letter, saying it would mean everything to me if he would ask the pope if he could arrange this meeting. I didn’t hear anything back for four and a half months and then I got an email [from Father Nicolas], saying he had talked to the pope the previous day, briefed him about the request, and that the pope’s response to our request was ‘an unambiguous yes.”

S: What was your response to learning that the pope was willing to grant your request?

FS: I called up Jeff Wright. I said, “Guess what? We’re going! It’s going to happen. This thing we thought was only in the vague realm of possibility is now actually going to happen.” The impossible, the miracle had happened.

S: What was the mood of your party in the minutes before you met his Holiness?

FS: November the third. Monday. 10:30am. [The party of eleven] was expected at the Apostolic Palace of the Vatican City for a private conversation with the pope… It was a little bit intimidating. How do you get there? What’s that going to be like? People start asking: “What do we wear?” “What do we call him?” “What can we say?” “What kind of questions can we ask?”… We had been told that it would likely be about fifteen minutes… it would be more of a formality.

S: Could you describe the sensation of being escorted into the heart of the Vatican?

FS: So, we go through the Vatican City State, and we came to this inner courtyard, and we took these elevators up to this level with this absolutely glorious mosaics and reception rooms and audience halls, and we came into the waiting room to the pope’s library where we would be meeting him, and then we were ushered into the room. My role was supposed to be the representative who would help the [nine members] of the family engage with the pope, and to translate to the pope, in Italian, whatever the family said… the pope would respond and then his response would be translated back to us by Father Adolfo Nicolas. So my role was the facilitator of the conversation more than anything else.

S: How did Pope Francis greet you and your party? How was the room arranged?

FS: So we went into the room. The pope was standing there wearing white. He had his hat, called a zucchetto, black shoes, white pope’s cassock. Each of us came up and greeted him, I introduced the member of the family to him. They shook hands and took a photo. And then we were invited into this oval… just the pope and us.

S: What questions or comments were posed to Pope Francis?

FS: The main thing that the family said and expressed was gratitude for the kinds of things [Pope Francis] has been doing. His way of including people, reaching out to people, being non-judgmental, engaging with the poor, showing compassion, showing his humanity was really encouraging for them, for their family members, their children and for their friends… So, they wanted to tell him, “You’re making a difference.” That was said by four or five different people in four or five different ways. I think that was the main message he got from us.

S: Can you explain your understanding of Pope Francis’ advice for students?

FS: I asked him if he had a message for us at Seattle U and he responded with a question. He asked, “What is the deepest value of your students?” I responded by saying our deepest value of our students is their commitment to justice. He said, “Then I’m going to ask another question, is there something that gets in the way of that for your students?” and I said I thought it was a kind of relativism. That one person has one view and another person has another view, and that all the views are just equally important and that this sort of leads to, sort of, ‘whatever.’ This contradicts that commitment to justice.

S: What was his response?

FS: He said two things, he said, with your students, words are not important, they don’t really count. It has to be witness. He stressed the word witness. The witness of your life, your action, your commitment, your faith and the kind of person you are. And secondly was incarnation. He said you have to enter into the concrete reality of your students and know who they are, how they feel, what are their challenges, what are their hopes and fears, what is their life really about? You have to engage with them, you have to get close to them, he said.

S: What were your impressions of Pope Francis?

FS: The thing that was most striking to all of us was that he made us feel like we were the only people who were important. Everyone felt welcome. He was very attentive, very warm… very gentle. He is soft spoken, he is kindly, he smiles, he has a great sense of humor… He put us at ease.

To wit, after half an hour we had gone a lot longer than we had thought we were going to be, so I told him it was really nice of him to spend this time with us… and then he said, “I don’t have mass for another 15 minutes, so if you would like to stay, we could just continue for a while.” It ended up being a 45 minute conversation. Then, before we left he blessed us and then as we were leaving he gave us all a rosary, stood by the door and said goodbye to each of us individually and asked for us to pray for him. So, it was a very familial kind of engagement. [It was] a high point of my life, without question.
If you go to the center of the Catholic Church and you find a person of such importance who is so gentle and kindly, it asks me if I can be President of Seattle University in a more gentle and kindly way? Can you exercise authority or responsibility in a more personable, kindly way—the way in which he does, when he is the head of 1.2 billion Catholics around the world?

S: What was the most striking image from the conversation?

FS: The most striking image that he had was his view that everyone in the world is living in a war zone. He says not just some of us are living in this way, not just those living in places where wars are going on, but that all of us are living like this. We are all living around people who are wounded, damaged, unemployed, suffering, hurting, discarded, discriminated against, made of no account, and so forth… and [the Church] is like a field hospital… and when you are a part of that field hospital, it is your responsibility to treat the wounds of those around you. So what he was trying to communicate was that we get too tied up in theories, plans and political positions when what is most important is directly engaging with people and being of compassion and mercy with them. So, know that you are in a field hospital and engage with the person in front of you and their needs.

S: As a Jesuit, what has been the most interesting or exciting perspective or change that the new pope has brought to his papacy and the Catholic Church?

FS: Without question it is his inclusiveness. Taking people where they are and who they are and engaging with them. That’s what Jesuits are about. We go to people as they are and we work with them as they are… [Pope Francis] talks about how he is worried that the Church is becoming a self referential thing. He says it has to reach out and walk with them where they are—whether they are of a different religion or no religion. The Church has to reach out and have dialogue with people as they are. That is a very Jesuit thing. It’s about finding God in all things, not just in a temple or a Church.

S: What will Jeff Wright’s mother be getting for Christmas this year?

FS: (Laughs) I talked to Jeff, and he said this year she’s getting an espresso machine.

Will may be reached at [email protected]