Imagine that your cell phone rings, and the display says the call is from a “private number.” You expect it to be a telemarketer. But instead, when you answer, you hear a man with an Argentine accent say: “This is Francis. I received your letter.”
That phone call happened to Daniel Ibanez, the CNA and EWTN News Vatican photographer, on an ordinary weekday morning in December 2018.
“I effectively stayed frozen, because I was speaking with the pope,” Ibanez told CNA. “He said: ‘I would like to invite you to the Mass at Casa Santa Marta on Dec. 20, 2018, which will be the last I publicly celebrate in the Vatican [before Christmas].’”
Ibanez had sent a letter to Pope Francis two months prior, in October 2018, telling him about his experience as a young Catholic from Palencia, Spain, living and working in Italy as a photographer for a Catholic media organization.
He had also expressed his desire for the opportunity to experience Pope Francis as an ordinary Catholic, since Ibanez is always working – that is, taking photos – during papal Masses and events.
The 27-year-old Ibanez said he was touched and surprised that during their phone call, which lasted about five minutes, Pope Francis asked his pardon for not responding to his letter sooner.
The pope also gave him the directions for what to do in two days to attend the private Mass at the Vatican’s guesthouse.
“He repeated what I should do four times, like a grandfather. Because I was not understanding. My brain was really frozen… I was speaking with the pope on my cellphone!” Ibanez said.
On Dec. 20, 2018, the photographer went through all the security to arrive at the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta. He said at first he sat at the very back, but the priests made him move to the front: “From a photographic perspective, the best seat.”
Ibanez said he remembers one part of Pope Francis’ homily that day in particular: “God enters history and does so in his original style: a surprise. The God of surprises, surprises us.”
After the Mass, the pope greeted each person individually. Ibanez introduced himself as a photographer for CNA and EWTN and gave him two photos he had taken of him.
He also gave the pope some letters from his friends and family, including one from a young woman who wrote about her elderly uncle, a retired priest in Spain. Pope Francis called this priest a few months later, speaking to him for about an hour.
Ibanez also told the pope about his friend, a wife and mother who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer a few days prior. Francis put his hand over the woman’s photo, staying in silence for some seconds. In that moment, “I felt that he is a very empathetic person, who listens,” he said.
Then, before the pope left, Ibanez asked if he could give him a hug, and the two embraced.
Ibanez is the youngest fully Vatican-accredited photographer, and the only one from Spain. He explained that he originally came to Rome to study, but he finds the words of St. Josemaria Escriva relatable, that one should “dream and your dreams will fall short.”
He only expected to be in Rome for six months, and instead he has been here for almost six years, he told CNA.
“This work is beautiful, even if it is a little tiring. But I am a Catholic and above all it is an honor to do this work,” he stated.
“It is true that the negative part is that [Pope Francis] is a person who never gets tired. So, if you follow the pope, the agenda of the pope is very complicated, very complex too. That is, to work on Sundays and holidays…”
Ibanez’ newest project has been to create a 2020 wall calendar, available for free from EWTN, featuring his photos. Each month showcases a full-page photo he took at the Vatican, in Rome, or in other places important to Catholicism, such as the Holy Land and the Shrine of Our Lady in Fatima.
Ibanez said the calendar is a way of helping people see the Vatican, and the Church, from their homes.
“It is a way of making these places present in the homes of American families.”