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  • Kingsley East

Vatican City: A Protestant's Mini-Pilgrimage to Meet the Pope

It's true. I flew half way across the world this May to walk up the steps of St. Peter's Basilica and meet Pope Francis.

(All images in this post © Vatican Media)

First thing's first: how did this happen?!

Through my work with the Theology, Ecology, and Food Justice Program, I joined a group of professors, staff, and students on a class trip to Italy. A few months before this trip, we started talking with a group of international, interdenominational professors interested in researching the church's involvement in ecological work, food production, and creation care in general. We are united by a shared conviction, articulated by Pope Francis in his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si,' that the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor are one voice calling for change, restoration, and hope. (I know, this is a lot...maybe I'll come back and write a post on what that means) To make a long story short, Pope Francis caught wind that a group of baptists in Texas are using his catholic teachings for education, inspiration, and change. The next thing we know, we have an invitation from the Vatican to attend the Papal Audience and meet His Holiness Pope Francis during our maymester class.

Note: As a Protestant, I only learned that the pope is referred to as "His Holiness" the week before my visit. If you're a Protestant, this may sound strange to you because God alone is holy, right? The Catholic thought behind this, as I understand it according to Google, is that the pope is holy by his association with God, for the pope is the representation of Christ on earth (the "Vicar of Christ"). Again, Protestants may feel weird about calling one person the representation of Christ, but remember that we teach that all Christians are filled with the Holy Spirit, are members of Christ's body, and act as the hands and feet of God. So, just as we believe all Christians represent Jesus Christ to the world, Catholics believe that the pope, by his election, uniquely represents Christ in the world.

Meeting the Pope

In my brief encounter, Pope Francis did serve as a witness of Christ to me and my colleagues. As he made his way towards us, his face beamed with joy. Then Pope Francis opened his mouth and reached across the divides of our religious traditions, nationalities, and ages with one of life's greatest barrier-breakers: humor.

I belly-laughed at the pope. Walking through St. Peter's Square, listening to the Papal Audience service (in 6 languages) from right beside the stage, and lining up on the steps of St. Peter's Basilica for our meet-and-greet was so surreal. None of us were prepared for our actual encounter, and then Pope Francis cracked some jokes. At the heart of his humor, he pointed to the unity between us: prayer.

Praying for the Pope

Pope Francis asked that we pray for him, even as he prays for us. As a Protestant from the United States, I'm used to praying for our nation's leaders, at least at school. Sometimes on our drive to church, Nathan and I pray for each of our pastors. But I've never prayed for the pope (until this morning when I remembered that he asked me to pray for him).

We celebrated Pentecost recently, and it's had me contemplating the purpose and power of prayer. It didn't take the pope asking for prayer for me to know that prayer matters, but I'll admit, I often fail to pray. I prioritize reading over praying in my devotional time. I write out petitions and then wonder what, if anything, prayer really does. I doubt that prayer changes things. I know about the psychological benefits of prayer, which honestly causes me to doubt the power of prayer even more. Am I just praying to make myself feel better? Thank God I'm married to a man with some Pentecostal background.

So this morning, I pray for Pope Francis. I pray that through him, the Spirit continues to knock down barriers between people with great differences. I pray that God unifies all those who call on God's name--Protestants and Catholics, Baptists and Presbyterians, United Methodists and Global Methodists. I pray God brings peace between all of the Abrahamic faiths--that Christians would come to know, serve, and love Jews and Muslims like friends, and visa-versa. I pray that just as in the first Pentecost of Acts 2, the Spirit would fall afresh over all of God's people and transform us.

Transforming through Pilgrimage

The primary purpose, in my experience, of pilgrimage is transformation. By inhabiting new places in new ways, we become new in a way that changes us when we return home. My trip to Vatican City and Rome was a whirlwind. I flew out on a Monday and back home on Friday (hence the "mini-pilgrimage"). I attended meetings with the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme. I walked through churches and catacombs, and I ate as much pasta, pizza, and gelato as I could in my short trip.

Now that I'm home, I wondering how I've changed. Did this pilgrimage transform me? Did it "work"? As I learned on the West Highland Way last summer, even by walking 100 miles, we can't conjure up transformation. Transformation on pilgrimage is something we can only receive from God.

On my first pilgrimage, my main takeaway was a new understanding of the purpose of life. In short, life with God is one in which we are faithful to the journey. We walk each day with open hands, not clinging to our possessions and aspirations, but paying attention to God, the people around us, and the work at hand. As the cliche goes, life's not about the mountaintops or the valleys; it's about the walking in between. Unbeknownst to us at the time, Nathan had the same life epiphanies on the Via Francigena. And a few years later, we married each other and vowed to "pilgrim together" through all of life.

Returning to Ordinary Time

Oddly enough, this mini-pilgrimage to Vatican City reinforced these same life principles I left with from the Via Francigena. On my flight to Rome, I couldn't help but build up this meeting with the pope as one of the biggest days of my life--a once in a lifetime trip, a monumental moment in my career, a story I'll tell people about for the rest of my life. As I had these thoughts, though, I kept thinking about Nathan. I imagined telling our grandchildren about the day I met the pope, and in my daydream, the thing that excited me wasn't the story about Pope Francis, it was the vision of Nathan as an old man in a rocking chair and us with grandchildren.

As I walked through the bustling streets of Rome, I felt excited but overwhelmed. As I met in the most prestigious and pristine office buildings I've ever seen, I was reminded that I prefer working in a small town where I run into people I've known for a decade at coffee shops (which happened while I've been writing this today).

As I stood in front of the Vicar of Christ, I was reminded that all people have the capacity to represent Christ in the world.

My family, the DaySpring youth, my co-workers, the strangers I drive by and order food from, the people online I disagree with--all can represent Jesus Christ. In every person I encounter, I have an opportunity to see, serve, and love God. One of the primary ways we love God and obey God's commandments is by loving and caring for our neighbors. When we care for God's creations, we embody our love for God and our gratitude for God's gifts.

"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me...Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” -Matthew 25:35-36, 40

Is it crazy that my mini-pilgrimage to meet the pope in Vatican City made me love my life and my home more? Maybe, but maybe that's another point of pilgrimages: we leave home so that we can come home renewed. We return with a clearer sense of what matters and what needs to change in our lives. I came home from meeting the pope with an old desire that our professor on the Via Francigena articulated many times: to be an ordinary pilgrim.

Your fellow ordinary pilgrim,


Song Recommendation: "We Will Feast in the House of Zion" by Sandra McCracken

This is an oldie but goodie by a Nashville favorite. Its soft style gives space for all of your feelings, and then it resounds the hope we have amidst all hardships and tragedies--that one day, we will feast in God's house and weep no more. This song has played in my head in the wake of the Covenant School shooting, and it continues to reverberate as I pray for ecumenical unity and am reminded that one day, we will be united with God and each other.

Book Recommendation: I'd love for you all to read Pope Francis's encyclical Laudato Si,' but in an effort to be realistic, I recommend his book written in conversation with Austen Ivereigh (who came to Baylor and our TEFJ class this spring!) called Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future. This book is Pope Francis's call for the church to come out of covid-19 and other coinciding crises better. It's clear and accessible; you won't feel like you're reading heavy theology even though you are. This book will convict you. It may even upset you. Hopefully, it will inspire you and transform how you see the world and chose to live in it.

Note: While I remain distinctly Protestant, I maintain the deepest respect and gratitude for the Catholic Church. I am indebted to her teachings from the Early Church Fathers and Mothers up to Pope Francis and other modern catholic theologians. I look forward to discussing and learning from you who've read my reflection, especially those of you who are Catholic. As pictured below, I'm on the edge of my seat...


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Sharon Carter
Sharon Carter
Jun 09, 2023

Kingsley, I'm reading this post as I wait for my one way flight to Waco-for good! Today I came out of silence from an 8 day retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Gloucester. It is the celebration at the close of my three-year Ignatian spiritual direction Your post is such a gift to me for sooo many reasons! God has transformed my life through the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and Ignatian Spirituality has grown my faith in so many ways. I grew up being taught particular ideas about the catholic tradition and it grieves me now. I was soooo misinformed and many of the critiques of the Catholic Church are true of the protestant church. I have attended…

Kingsley East
Jun 09, 2023
Replying to

Sharon, thank you! What a whirlwind- from the silent retreat to this move. I hope DaySpring becomes a needed landing place in Waco. We're very fond of our silence here. I'm so looking forward to getting to know you, Will, and the rest of your family. A mentor of mine from seminary just reached out to me about this post and her experiences with the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. I'll have to connect the two of you!

Traveling mercies.


Jun 08, 2023

You’re wise beyond your years, dear Kingsley. I ordered the Let Us Dream book and look forward to reading it and talking about it with you. ❤️

Kingsley East
Jun 09, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Kelly! I look forward to discussing :)

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