When white smoke poured out of the chimney of the Sistine Chapel on October 16, 1978, Fr. Eamon Kelly, a seminarian studying in Rome at the time, couldn’t have known that he was witnessing the election of a future saint.
Nor did he know that more than a dozen years after that election, he would be reprimanded by that same future saint, John Paul II, during one of his Wednesday general audiences.
It was Holy Week of 1992, and Fr. Kelly, a priest with the Congregation of the Legion of Christ, was on his annual pilgrimage to Rome.
But this year was different.
His youth group had brought along eight Russian young people, the tension of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War just barely in the rearview mirror of history.
Fr. Kelly had done some strategizing to make sure the Russian youth got a good seat.
“We had our tickets and we went in early, and we did get positions up against the barrier of the corridor,” Fr. Kelly said. “So that was fantastic, we were going to see Pope John Paul II.”
His German students gave up all of the seats closest to the aisle, so that the Russian young people would get to shake the Pope’s hand as he walked through the Paul VI audience hall.
“I had the kids observe how he did it – he’d shake hands but by that he’d already moved on to talking to the next person, greeting them,” Fr. Kelly recalled.
“So I told them this pope knows Russian, and you need to greet him politely when he’s two or three people away; say some nice greeting in Russian.”
They did, and it worked: sure enough, the Pope’s ears perked up when he heard the Russian greetings. As soon as he got to the group, he stopped walking.
“He started talking to them in Russian, and there was a tremendous chemistry going on, and everybody was super excited. Our six rows of kids had assimilated into about two,” Fr. Kelly said.
Eventually the Pope asked, in Russian, how the group was able to make it to Rome. All the Russian students turned and pointed at Fr. Kelly.
He was a head taller than most of the students, so Fr. Kelly suddenly found himself in straight eye contact with John Paul II.
“There was so much joy and appreciation and gratitude in his eyes that these kids were there,” Fr. Kelly said.
“But then, his look turned like a storm with a critical question – ‘Why didn’t you tell me before they came?’” the Pope demanded of the priest.
“You know, like I could call up the Pope and tell him we’re coming,” Fr. Kelly recalled with a laugh.
“I tried to give an excuse, I said it was hanging by a thread that it was going to happen, I just fumbled my way through it. What are you going to do when the Pope is asking you for accountability?” Fr. Kelly said.
In hindsight, Fr. Kelly said he maybe could have called an office in the Vatican to alert them of the Russian students, but he didn’t realize that this visit would be so important for the Pope.
But Russia was dear to St. John Paul II’s heart, as he had played a critical role in the peaceful fall of communism and the Soviet Union. Just a few years prior, he had met for over an hour with President Mikhail Gorbachev, who later said the peaceful dissolution of the USSR would have been impossible without the Roman Pontiff.
Perhaps their meeting in 1989 had also softened Gorbachev’s heart prior to World Youth Day 1991, when the leader allowed some 20,000 Russian youth to attend the event in Poland for the first time ever. The conciliatory move was the whole reason the Russian students were now meeting John Paul II in Rome.
“He said to me, ‘This is the first group of Russians I’ve ever greeted in the audience hall’,” Fr. Kelly said.
It’s possible that it may have been the first youth group from Moscow to visit Rome ever, Fr. Kelly said.
“I don’t want to claim that title, because there may have been others, but it’s unlikely that anyone would have been able to come before the start of communism,” he said.
He said the Pope was visibly moved by the Russian students.
“He was happy, he was happy. He said if he would have known that they were there, he would have greeted them formally from the stage.”
And the Russian students?
“They were elated.”
This article was originally published on CNA Oct. 22, 2016.
By Mary Rezac