Fr. Raul Gomez Ruiz and Fr. Tom Knoebel from Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology met Pope Francis in December.

When Fr. Tom Knoebel, the current President-Rector of Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology, was in Rome in December he hoped to rely on his acquaintance with Dr. Guzmán Carriquiry, a personal friend of the Pope’s, to get tickets to attend the Holy Father’s Mass in St Peter’s Basilica on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12 for himself and his successor at Sacred Heart, Fr. Raúl Gómez Ruiz.

Fr. Knoebel said, “I was thinking to myself that if this is the personal friend of the Holy Father maybe it would be possible to also get those very rare tickets which allow you to meet personally with the Holy Father. I thought that if anyone can arrange that for us it will be Guzman.”

He said that he’ll never forget Dr. Carriquiry running down the hallway of his office toward him waving two white tickets telling him that he would be admitted to the Pope’s presence the next day. “I couldn’t believe it, and I was so thankful.”

Fr. Gomez spent six years in Rome as Vicar General of the Society of the Divine Savior (Salvatorians, SDS). Meeting His Holiness came on the last full day of his stay in the city before he returned to the United States, and was a long-held dream he thought might never come true.

Fr. Gomez had been in St. Peter’s Square on the day the Pope’s election was announced in 2013. “Even from a distance, there was something very special in his demeanor and his way of speaking. I immediately noticed his eyes full of wonder, maybe even a little fear, at the scene laid out before him in the square, filled with an enormous crowd on a rainy evening,” Fr. Gomez said of the moment he stood in the crowd as Pope Francis emerged to give his first blessing as the Holy Father.

On the morning of Dec. 12, the Swiss Guard led Fr. Knoebel and Fr. Gomez around thousands of people waiting in the courtyard and escorted them to a small wooden barricade by the stage where Pope Francis gives his Wednesday audience. That day, Pope Francis gave a presentation on the “Our Father,” then greeted bishops, newly married couples dressed in their wedding clothes, and the sick before getting to those select few who had tickets to meet him.

According to Fr. Knoebel there were four or five Swiss Guards in plain clothes surrounding the Pope, a live TV camera feed walking in front of him, and two still cameras constantly taking pictures of everyone he met with along the barrier. Fr. Knoebel said excitement grew as His Holiness got closer, “and then all of a sudden, he was in front of us. He reached out, grabbed and touched both of our arms and hands and I saw immediately that he was totally focused on the person he was talking to.”

Fr. Knoebel said what he noticed most about Pope Francis was he didn’t glance at the people he left, or the people he was going to meet next, that he was always directly looking at the person he was speaking to.

Fr. Gomez said, “He held our hands tenderly and warmly,” as Fr. Knoebel tried to convey in English that Sacred Heart Seminary and School of Theology had held a symposium in his honor in October, examining the philosophical and theological foundations of his magisterium.

Both priests could tell that he was concentrating very hard to understand so Fr. Gomez reiterated in Spanish what Fr. Knoebel had said and the Pope visibly brightened. Fr. Gomez said speaking about the symposium, its purpose and organization, was a special moment of connection between the three of them. “I was also able to convey that my family and I were praying for him and thanked him for his courageous service.”

Fr. Knoebel received a personal blessing from Pope Francis on his upcoming 50th jubilee of priestly ordination and told him how much he feels we need his presence in the United States. Fr. Knoebel said, “holding my hand, he looked up to heaven and asked, ‘pray for me.’ To me, it said that he knows the United States needs a lot of help, so pray for him. It felt very significant. His Holiness really loves people and wants what is best for each of them.”

Though they only spent about a minute with the Holy Father, both men said the ease of conversation made them feel like they were talking to an old friend, not a world leader, and the encounter was filled with peace and awe and a privileged moment they’ll never forget.