A few hours after returning to campus from Rome, President Stephen Sundborg, S.J., was only beginning to process the unusual chain of events that placed him in the company of the leader of the Catholic Church.
It all started with what seemed like a simple enough question when one of SU's trustees asked his mother what she wanted for Christmas.
"I would like to meet the pope," she answered. So much for an espresso maker.
Nevertheless, the son dutifully set out to make his mother's wish come true. After trying a few different avenues and coming up empty, he turned to Fr. Sundborg to see if the president might use his Ignatian mojo to help arrange a meeting with the most famous Jesuit in the world.
"What I thought was that I've never been asked that before," says Fr. Sundborg, "and I don't know if that's possible."
But he gave it a shot. He wrote to the head of the Jesuits, Superior General Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., and what do you know, a few months later, there was an answer. The pope, Fr. Nicolás reported, not only responded but responded "unambiguously YES."
And so it was that a group of about a dozen visitors, including the mother who made the request, her son, other family members, the rector of SU's Jesuit community, Tom Lucas, S.J., and President Sundborg found themselves on a shuttle bus to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis at 10:30 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 3.
"Closer and closer to the inner sanctum"
The meeting was to take place in the Apostolic Palace or Papal Palace where the pope typically meets with dignitaries. To reach their destination, the group relied on the same man who had been so critical in making the visit possible.
"We picked up the Superior General at the Jesuit headquarters," says Fr. Sundborg. "Father Nicolás was absolutely eager to help with this. He directed the driver on where to go. He was recognized by security and waved on through. There was no need to show our passports."
Just getting to the palace was an experience unto itself. The visitors wended their way through a series of arches, courtyards, corridors and ramps. Along the way, escorted by the colorfully attired Swiss Guards and chamberlains, the guests ogled the magnificent centuries-old works of art displayed all around them.
"It's overwhelming to have that experience of being whisked closer and closer into the inner sanctum of the Vatican," says Fr. Sundborg. "Just the process of getting there is so unusual; it's like nothing you've ever done in your life."
And yet for the president and his traveling companions, this day of once-in-a-lifetime experiences was just starting.
Meeting the Holy Father
After reaching the Apostolic Palace, the group was led into a room about twice the size of an SU classroom. And there he was, standing alone, the man who went by the name Jorge Mario Bergoglio until a conclave of cardinals did what many considered unthinkable and elected a Jesuit pope on March 13, 2013.
A day before the visit, Fathers Sundborg and Lucas had joined 200,000 faithful in St. Peter's Square for the pope's weekly Angelus blessing. Now here they were face to face with the man to whom the throngs had clamored.
Francis warmly greeted his visitors and invited them to join him seated in an oval of chairs. Father Sundborg played the role of facilitator. He explained to the pope who the guests were and invited the family members to ask questions or make comments. President Sundborg translated their words into Italian, Pope Francis replied in either Italian or Spanish and Superior General Nicolás translated the responses back to English.
When it was his turn, the president asked if the pope had a message for Seattle University's students. Rather than reel off a pat answer, Francis had a couple questions of his own about the students of SU. After learning more from the president, he had two messages.
"One was 'witness'" says Fr. Sundborg. "That words don't count. Words only touch a person's mind. The only thing that counts for the students of your university is your witness. The witness of your life, the witness of your faith, the witness of your commitment, the witness of who you are. Witness is what counts.
"And second, he spoke of 'incarnation.' That you have to enter into the concreteness, the existential reality of your students' lives."