Two Boston College juniors walked away from the Vatican with a treasured memento Wednesday, after Pope Francis gave them his white papal skullcap.
Philosophy majors Katherine Rich and Ethan Mack, who are studying in Rome this semester, waited along the barricades with a skullcap, called a zucchetto, and a note attached that read, “Boston College loves our Jesuit pope,” the students of the Jesuit-run university said Thursday in e-mail messages from Rome.
“We thought he wouldn’t see us, but we both yelled, ‘Papa!’ and at that second he turned around, saw us, and asked the driver to stop,” said Rich, 20, a native of Minnetonka, Minn.
They extended the zucchetto, bought for 50 euros, or about $68, the night before near St. Peter’s Square, and the pope sent over a guard who carried it to him, they said.
Francis smiled at the note and donned the cap after making sure it was the right size, they said, then handed his own zucchetto to the guard.
“The pope then gave a nod and smiled right at us,” said Mack, 21, who is from Portland, Maine. “He took off with the one I bought, and the guard gave us his original one.”
The Rev. Thomas Rosica, chief executive of the Salt and Light Catholic Television Network in Toronto, said such exchanges have happened with previous popes, but are an increasingly regular practice under Francis.
“I wasn’t there to see it,” Rosica said of the exchange with Rich and Mack, “but it happens by the dozens every week.”
“It’s a wonderful gesture,” Rosica said. “It’s a way of him reaching out to people.”
Since assuming the papacy in March, Francis has garnered praise from Catholics and non-Catholics alike for his humility and compassion. He was named person of the year Wednesday by Time magazine, whose managing editor praised him “for committing the world’s largest church to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy.”
Rich and Mack said the idea for the trade came from friends studying at Providence College and the Catholic University of America, who attempted trades but were unsuccessful because their zucchettos were the wrong size.
The BC students arrived at the Vatican early to secure a spot near the barricades in St. Peter’s Square, where the pontiff greets the faithful from his popemobile.
At first he passed without noticing Mack waving the zucchetto, but when Mack and Rich called out to him, Francis turned back to see them.
Rich said many in the crowd asked to touch or kiss the zucchetto, or to take a photo with it, requests to which they happily acquiesced.
“The best part of the whole encounter was just seeing Pope Francis smile at us,” Rich said. “He radiates joy in a way unlike anyone else.”