On the day of the funeral in St. Peter's Square, I wanted to shout, "A saint has died! A saint has died!"
There are many people who could write much more than I can about their relationship with Pope Benedict XVI, such as his long-time friend Archbishop Alfons Nossol, Monsignor Pawel Ptasznik and even Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz. Dozens of requests for an interview came to me on the day Pope Benedict XVI died, which is why I’m making this memoir public. This is my personal testimony, that of an ordinary, simple boy who experienced the great grace of being close to, in my opinion, a saint.
My visit to the Vatican
It was the evening of November 11, 2019, and Rome was drowning in torrential rain. A little after 5 p.m., I sipped a cappuccino at a nearby bar on Borgo Pio and stood at St. Anne’s Gate leading to the Vatican. At the Vatican Gendarmerie pass office, I presented a letter of invitation signed by the pope’s personal secretary emeritus, Archbishop Georg Gänswein, after which I got into a car with one of the officers and we headed through the Belvedere Courtyard toward the Vatican Gardens, then stopped in front of the Mater Ecclesiae monastery gate.
The officer rang the bell, after which the gate opened and he asked me to leave the car. At the door of the monastery stood a sister serving at the monastery, who greeted me with a warm smile and a kind word. We entered the hallway, and she took my jacket and invited me to wait in the room on the left on the first floor.
A few minutes passed. I was really looking forward to this meeting, as the last time we had seen each other had been three years earlier.
Meeting with Benedict XVI
Suddenly the door opened and the figure of the retired pope, Holy Father Benedict XVI, appeared in a wheelchair. When I saw him, although I was on one leg and on two crutches, I knelt before him, laid my head on his hands and tears flowed from my eyes.
I was unable to pronounce a single word. I was crying and he was stroking my head, and not for a moment did I feel restrained in any way.
This moment was similar to when you meet someone extremely close to you after a long separation. I lifted my head and my weeping eyes saw his serene, loving, and gentle face. I kissed His Holiness’ hand, and Archbishop Gänswein helped me get up and sit next to the Holy Father. We began our meeting.
Polish gifts for the retired pope
I brought His Holiness many gifts from Poland. Among them were letters from people for whom he remains extremely important and who love him; CDs of classical music performed by young musicians from the Sinfonia Iuventus orchestra; an album in English about the life and works of Frederic Chopin, and my book, You Only Live Once. When the Holy Father took the latter in his hands, he began to look through it page by page and asked about all the people in the numerous photos. He was keenly interested. And he blessed everyone.
Unfortunately, the book has only been published in Polish, and it recalls several of our earlier meetings, back during the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI. When we finished looking through it, Archbishop Gänswein handed it back to me saying, “Take it please. You will give it to someone who understands Polish.” But then the Holy Father put his hand on it, saying, “Please keep it in my library.”
This gesture made me feel a great emotion once again. I felt special.
Benedict XVI: Humility, modesty, love
I also offered His Holiness my “Compostela” (a sort of certificate of completion, Ed.) from the 2017 Camino de Santiago, when I walked for the Holy Father on his 90th birthday. He took the framed document in his hands, looked at me and said: “And you walked such a long and difficult road for my intention? What did I do to deserve this?”
How impressed I was once again by his great humility, his modesty and his great love. I thought about what my gift to him could be in the face of all those he receives from around the world. Yet he showed me that I was something special to him.
He perceived what was invisible to the eyes. He perceived the love that can only be seen with the heart.
I felt simply loved
During this meeting, there were also funny moments when the Holy Father looked through the classical music CDs I had given him. He delighted in concertos by Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Michal Lorenc’s composition Przymierze, Piotr Baron’s disc Wodecki Jazz, one after another, and I trembled that the Holy Father would ask me about any of the works of the great composers, since on the subject of music I absolutely cannot call myself an expert.
When he came to a CD of Haydn’s music, he looked at the pieces and commented: “Hmmm. I’m not fond of it. You have it, Georg, that’s for you…” And we all laughed sincerely, as if in a circle of friends.
Once again, I didn’t feel as if one of the most outstanding theologians and thinkers was sitting next to me. One of the Church’s greatest popes. I felt like I was with someone to whom I am important. I felt simply loved.
I knew I was sitting next to, I believe, a future Doctor of the Church and a saint, but I felt that I was with someone to whom I was important. Someone who sees me as much more than just another visitor.
A gift from the Holy Father
I could have sat there indefinitely, but when I noticed that the Holy Father was beginning to tire, we wordlessly agreed with Archbishop Georg that it was time to slowly end the audience.
I had one request for the Holy Father at the end. I had brought with me the pièce de résistance of the Gammarelli tailor shop, where papal vestments have been sewn since the 18th century. I asked the Holy Father if I could just put it on my head for a moment. He took off his own, put it in a box and took my hand.
“See you in heaven”
When he blessed me at the end of the meeting, I put on my jacket and, leaving the room with Archbishop Georg, I took one last look at the Holy Father. He slightly raised his hand and said: “See you in heaven. I’ll be waiting for you there.”
I waved him off, not as if I were saying goodbye to the head of the Church, but as if I were saying goodbye to someone close to me. I left the Mater Ecclesiae monastery accompanied by the Archbishop. We could not hide our tears. There was no need to do so either.
At this point, I cannot overlook the role and dedication of Archbishop Gänswein as Pope Benedict’s personal secretary. I wish everyone to have such a friend, and I thank the Archbishop for his life dedicated to serving the Holy Father and the Church.
Audience in St. Peter’s Square
The Holy Father remembered each of our meetings. Each of the details. And yet I am no one special. But he treated everyone the same, with the utmost respect and attention. He bestowed great love on everyone.
I remember one of the general audiences with the Holy Father Benedict XVI. When I arrived in St. Peter’s Square, it was already filled to capacity. At the end of the square I saw an elderly woman praying the Rosary and waiting to meet the pope. Unfortunately, she was standing outside the barriers.
I approached her and asked: “Would you like to come in closer with me? I have two tickets.” She replied: “I don’t want to make a problem for you. I’ll be happy if I can at least see the Holy Father.” I replied: “So I invite you to come with me, from this place you will be better able to see the Holy Father.”
The most touching meeting
As we reached the special section, which is right next to the papal throne, her eyes filled with tears and she said, “Sir, I’m not even dressed nicely. I shouldn’t be here.” “The Lord Jesus is looking at another garment – the one invisible to the eyes,” I replied, taking her hand.
Throughout the audience, tears streamed down her cheeks while she was gazing at the Holy Father. She didn’t yet know what gift the Lord God had prepared for her. After the blessing and baciamano (kissing of the hand), the pope approached the section, and she was able to shake his hand.
For the Holy Father at that moment, she was like the only person in the square, and for her, he was. This meeting lasted maybe two seconds, but it was one of the most moving encounters I have witnessed.
“A saint has died!”
This is how I remember Pope Benedict XVI from every meeting we had: the one in the Apostolic Palace, and those during general audiences in St. Peter’s Square, in the summer residence in Castel Gandolfo or in the Monastero Mater Ecclesiae of the Vatican Gardens.
When he took your hand and looked into your eyes, you only existed for him. Even though there were thousands of other people around, at any given moment you were the only one for him! Maybe that’s why it’s difficult for me to give an interview, because I can’t hold back my tears at the memory of all these events. Because it’s the second closest person to my heart that I love and, in human terms, have lost in a week. Because there remains a huge empty place in my heart, but also an inner certainty that I believe the Church, through the beatification process, will confirm that Pope Benedict XVI is already in heaven and interceding for us there before the Lord.
Today, just as on the day of the funeral in St. Peter’s Square, I want to shout with full conviction, like the children on the streets of Rome after the death of St. Benedict Joseph Labre: “A saint has died! A saint has died!”
I love you, Holy Father. Thank you, and see you in heaven.