Ajani Gibson: How I got into position to exchange zucchettos with Pope Francis

ROME – Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 – what an incredible day!

Arriving at St. Peter’s Square at 6 a.m. and sprinting to the coveted seats along the barricade are a part of my normal routine for papal events in the square, but swapping zucchettos with Pope Francis was not included in the plan for that day.

There was a woman from Florida who was sitting in the row with me and nine of my classmates. She told us she wanted to swap the zucchetto – the white skull cap – she had brought to the general audience with the pope’s in order to donate it to a hospice she was connected with. My eyes lit up at the thought of helping this lady accomplish this difficult task.

I characterize the task as difficult because getting the attention of the pope can be challenge when thousands of other people are trying to do the exact same thing at the same time. I came up with a game plan.

Pope Francis entered the square at 9:45 a.m., and my heart dropped, but I was ready. He passed the first section and turned on the pathway in front of where I was located. I stepped on the chair I was sitting on in order to get high enough so that the pope could see me. That plan was cut short because a Swiss Guard and a police officer glared and yelled at me to get down.

I complied quickly because the pope was five seconds away from me. I caught the eyes of the head of the pope’s security, who looked at me and gave me the “I see you over there but the pope is kissing babies, so I don’t know if he’ll see you” face.

Busy kissing babies!

And, that is exactly what happened. The pope didn’t see me because he was kissing the babies on the other side. Attempt No. 1 was a fail, but it was OK because the pope was going to pass my way again. And that he did.

The second time he passed my section, he noticed me. I thrust the zucchetto toward him, but I couldn’t get it to him because the driver was “driving with purpose.” However, the pope did notice me; he even gave me the “I saw you and I’m sorry I couldn’t get to you” face. My second attempt was a step up from the first because at least the pope noticed me.

Mind you, these crowds are like the crowds on Mardi Gras going after a Zulu coconut – intense.

I was more determined than ever to get the zucchetto in his hand. He looped around my section a third time and came up the center aisle. Because the center aisle was lined with wheelchairs, the popemobile took its time coming through the crowd. This was it – my last chance!

So, I stepped on the lower rail of the bannister and stuck my hand out. Something makes me think that the pope remembered that I was on the corner of that section, because when he passed, he was standing as far to the right as he could in the popemobile – the side I was on.

I reached my hand toward him and he reached to me! The zucchetto was in his hands, but the popemobile was still going. He tapped the driver and told him to stop. The pope took the zucchetto off his head, looked at me, sized the one I had given to him with the one he had on, and handed it to the security guard to give me. Sometimes, he simply puts the zucchetto he receives from the crowd on his head for a few seconds and gives it right back – this time, he gave us the one he had been wearing!

Giving him a gesture of thanks, I was in awe. He turned toward me, smiled and then gave me a wave. With tears in my eyes, I held it to my chest and stared at it before passing it down the line of my classmates.

It was incredible. The woman from Florida took it and wrapped it before placing it in her box. Her face was glowing brighter than the sun. Afterwards, she gave me a big hug and expressed how much it meant to her and to those who will encounter the zucchetto back home.

It’s fitting that the zucchetto will be heading to a hospice. I’m just grateful I was able to help make that happen. What a blessing!

Ajani Gibson of New Orleans is a third-year theology student at The Catholic University of America. He is a member of St. Peter Claver Parish.


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