July 18, 2013 Thursday — A joyful encounter in the Domus Santa Marta

“Maybe I am also a sheep of God…” –Leandro Martins, 30, of Porto Alegre, Brazil, who met this morning with Pope Francis in the Domus Santa Marta in the Vatican

“Que Dios te acompañe. Francisco. 18-7-13 (“May God be with you, Francis”) –Pope Francis, words that he wrote in Spanish on the flag of Brazil brought to him by Leandro Martins this morning in the Domus Santa Marta

“Jesus accepts, loves, uplifts, encourages, forgives, restores the ability to walk, gives back life. Throughout the Gospels we see how Jesus by his words and actions brings the transforming life of God.” –Pope Francis, Homily, Holy Mass for “Evangelium Vitae” Day, June 16, 2013, St. Peter’s Square

The first among many

This morning, as the hot July sun was just beginning to rise over Rome, something extraordinary happened.

Wearing a bicycle helmet and black-and-purple bicycle gloves, a black-haired young man from Porto Alegre, Brazil — the country where the Pope will meet next week with hundreds of thousands of young people for World Youth Day — rode his bicycle through the Sant’Uffizio gate of the Vatican and, with the approval of Vatican security, up to the front doors of the Domus Santa Marta, where Pope Francis is living.

His name was Leandro Martins, and he was fulfilling a dream to meet the Pope.

(Pope Francis embraces Leandro Martins after morning Mass in the Domus Santa Marta, with the Pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, looking on)

Martins attended the Pope’s private morning Mass, and after the Mass, Pope Francis greeted Martins with a warm embrace.

“I left Amsterdam by bicycle nine weeks ago, on the eighth of May,” Martins explained after the meeting. “I bicycled through Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, then to Trieste, Venice, Bologna, Pisa, and finally here to Rome. I have cycled 3,154 kilometers. And now I am cycling to Brindisi, then Greece, and Israel, then Asia. I intend to cycle another 7,000 kilometers.”

What did he say to the Pope, and what did the Pope say to him?

“I mentioned to him that I had been shocked by the tragedy in Brazil, in Santa Maria, where 240 people, mostly young people, died in a terrible fire,” Martins said. “He said he knew about that and was also sad. He asked me where I was living, and I said, ‘Come and see my bicycle,’ and we went outside together, and I said, ‘Here is my house, my tent, my mattress…”

(Pope Francis and Leandro Martins this morning outside the Domus Santa Marta, going to see Martins bicycle)

Martins is not a religious person, he said, and he is not a Catholic. But he attended the Pope’s Mass (he did not receive communion).

“It was the first time in my life that I attended a Mass from beginning to end,” Martins said. “I kept expecting him to come in from the back, dressed in white, and when he came in from the side on the left [the sacristy], dressed in a green vestment, I was surprised and for a moment I was not sure it was him.

“What I found interesting was that after Mass was over the Pope came out and sat by himself. That surprised me. Then I thought I was not going to have a chance to meet him, but Monsignor Alfred brought me outside the chapel and we met and talked. What surprised me was the simplicity of the chapel. It’s so simple. He’s a simple man and everything is simple there. In these days of ostentation, where having stuff and being someone is more important than things that really matter, he speaks to people like me, he offers a different vision.”

(Pope Francis with Leandro Martins this morning outside the Domus Santa Marta, looking at a flag of Brazil that Leandro has been carrying with him on his bicycle)

The Pope and Martins then went back inside the Domus Santa Marta, and the Pope signed the flag of Brazil, which also had been signed by many others whom Martins had met during his journey across Europe.

Martins asked the Pope if he would mind signing the flag, and the Pope did so.

“May God accompany you,” the Pope wrote, signing it simply “Francis.”

“He did not write ‘Pope Francis,’ just ‘Francis,'” Martins said.

What did he think of the Pope’s brief message?

“From the beginning of my trip, I believe God has been with me,” Martins told me later this morning.

Martins obtained permission for the meeting after writing about 50 letters during the past few weeks, saying that he was coming to Rome and would love to have the chance to meet the Pope. The letters eventually came to the attention of the Pope’s personal secretary, Monsignor Alfred Xuereb, and an invitation was issued to attend this morning’s Mass and to meet the Pope.

Here are excerpts from the last letter that Martins wrote to Monsignor Xuereb:

“I’m not going to lie, I’m not a Catholic, actually I’ve never been interested in religion at all, but after the whole media coverage that the election of the Pope has received, it was impossible not to be aware of it and even more not to receive the news with great expectations and joy, due to the new Pope being a neighbor of mine.

“I am from Porto Alegre, a city of Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, a place that Pope Francis has been many times visiting relatives. I just hope it does not help Argentina in football’s world cup, but I am really happy that there is a Pope coming from Latin America, and expecially for his humility, kindness and affection to poor people. I think that with his background he will really contribute for a better society.

“For so long I have been working hard and dreaming about my trip, now I camp every day and cook my own food as a way of making it possible as well as having in the simplicity everything I need to be happy…

“I was already looking forward to visiting Rome and the Vatican, because I love history, but now with Pope Francis my excitement is even bigger. I know it’s going to sound ridiculous and you are going to laugh at me but… I really would like to meet him, OK go ahead…

“I know I am not an important person, a head of state, an authority or even a Catholic, but maybe I am also a sheep of God (or at least a neighbor of the Pope) and that makes me feel that if I believe brom the bottom of my heart that it is possible, it really van happen. As everything I got in life, as this trip that was a huge impossible dream, but now it is happening. So I thought: why not try?

“And that is why I am writing you this letter, after some research I found out you are the private secretary of Pope Francis, and if this letter gets to you there is a real chance that you would be kind enough to let the Pope know that there is a ‘gaucho’ traveling the world by bike that would be ‘molto felice’ to meet this wonderful man.

“The reason says it is too difficult or even impossible for it to happen, but definitely I am not a rational person, I am a dreamer who does not give up without a fight. I beg you, Monsignor Xuereb, please do not contact the bureacracy of the Vatican, let the Pope know about me and decide if I can meet him or not. I’m going to stay in Rome until Monday, July 27, the day Pope Francis is leaving to my beloved Brazil.”

The Pope departs from Rome on July 22 for Rio de Janeiro for the celebration of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. But this young Brazilian has already, in a sense, launched World Youth Day, by coming from Brazil to find the Pope, even before his departure.

(Pope Francis in the Domus Santa Marta at the front desk signs the flag of Brazil for Leandro Martins, who had come to visit him after riding his bicycle more than 3,000 kilometers. The Pope wrote, “May God be with you.”)

“I didn’t come here as a Catholic or a religious person,” Martins said. “But since I saw him at the time of his election, his simplicity and humility, I felt a desire to approach him. When he went to the island of Lampedusa, I was astonished by the generosity of his heart toward those poor immigrants who sometimes die as they try to come by sea from Africa to Italy. He is very simple. He is someone who cares about others in a way that is not only his duty or the job he does, but that is personal. I am always touched by the simple acts he performs. Now that I have met him, I will send another letter to him, thanking him.”

(Here below, Leandro Martins this morning after meeting the Pope)

Martins has a web blog at www.leandrobybike.blogspot.com. His email is [email protected]

New Foundation

Editor’s Note: I wanted to thank the “Founding Members” of our new “Urbi et Orbi Foundation,” who have contributed more than $100,000 since Christmas to help us launch this initiative, aimed at working to improve relations between Catholics and Orthodox. We will be announcing our first projects and grants in a few days. We do seek further support. If anyone would like more information about this important initiative, please write to me by replying to this email. –Robert Moynihan

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