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The friendship between a young Franciscan friar and the pope


Photo courtesy of Bret Thoman

Bret Thoman, OFS - published on 05/25/22

When the phone rang, Father Roberto didn't recognize the number. He answered it anyway, and it changed his life forever.

Father Roberto, O.F.M. is a 39-year-old Italian Franciscan friar. When he was ordained a priest in 2010, he never imagined that he would one day have a personal friendship with the pope, much less that he would be chosen as a Synodal Father. But the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways. 

Padre Roberto was born in 1983 in the picturesque hill town of Caldarola in the shadow of the Sibylline Mountains, though he grew up in the nearby city of Macerata. In 2002, he entered the Order of Friars Minor in the Marches Province.

Padre Roberto

While studying in Rome in 2016, Padre Roberto attended a weekly papal general audience. Seated near the fence, he had the occasion to witness Pope Francis when he passed by. Perhaps struck by Padre Roberto’s young age, the pope paused to greet him. 

In that moment, Padre Roberto felt moved to express some concerns he had about his role as director of youth ministry for his province. After responding to him briefly, the Holy Father told him to write him a letter expounding on his questions. 

An important letter written to the Pope

Initially, Padre Roberto did not write the letter, as he felt too insignificant to distract the pontiff. However, later that year, at World Youth Day in Poland, in one of his talks, the pope said something that struck him: “Follow your dreams, your desires. Fight for your dreams and desires.” When Padre Roberto came back home to Italy, he wrote the letter and mailed it to the Vatican Secretary of State, referencing the short dialogue they had had at the audience. 

About one month later, Padre Roberto’s phone rang. Since he was in his car and it was from an unknown number, he ignored it. The next day, he received another call from an unknown number. This time, he answered. It was Pope Francis.

After Padre Roberto overcame his sense of shock, the two spoke for some time. The pope talked about his vision for youth and discernment, and invited the young friar to the Vatican to meet with him personally.

 One week later, Padre Roberto arrived at the Petriano Gate and checked in with the Swiss Guards. When he met the Holy Father, the pope spoke more about his pastoral vision for youth and ministry. Though it had not been announced, the pope was introducing Padre Roberto to his plan to call a Synod on Young People. It was formally announced the following year.

After that meeting, a spiritual friendship formed between Pope Francis and Padre Roberto. They spoke on the phone or met in person about a dozen times. The pope invited him to participate in each phase of organization and implementation for the synod. Incredibly, he was invited by the pope himself to be a Synodal Father.

The synod consisted of some 400 participants among invitees, experts, and Synodal Fathers (who were virtually all bishops, archbishops, and cardinals). Most had decades of working experience under their belt. Up to that point, a synod was something Padre Roberto had studied about during his seminary, and he felt timid. At the same time, he felt serene, since it was the pope himself who had given him the mandate to be there. 

Though Pope Francis and Padre Roberto are in touch less often these days, they still speak. When they do, the pope calls him Roberto, or affectionately, Fraile, the Spanish word for “friar.” (The word derives from frater, brother, in Latin.) 

Indeed, the “fraternal” relationship that formed between the pontiff and young friar is consistent with his vision of fraternity in the world.

May it be an inspiration to all of us.

Pope Francis
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