Some 50,000 people witnessed Pope Francis being named an honorary member of the Harlem Globetrotters May 6. One of them was a Mesa Catholic who shook his hand.
Better yet, he coordinated the entire encounter from his Phoenix office with a little assistance from a priest friend who once served in the Diocese of Phoenix and has spent nearly the last four years working at the Vatican.
Brett Meister, a parishioner at Christ the King in Mesa, is the senior vice president of communications for the Harlem Globetrotters. He initiated the meeting in late February or early March.
“It was a very slow process because you can imagine how many requests they get for people to meet the pope,” Meister told The Catholic Sun.
The process was a bit quicker the first time he coordinated a papal encounter for the team. Rewind to the Church’s Jubilee of the Year 2000. A colleague had been trying to get a meeting with then Pope John Paul II in honor of the Harlem Globetrotter’s 75th anniversary season. A few months’ work had yet to bear fruit.
“You’re Catholic. You may have more connections than I do. Can you take a stab at it?” the colleague told Meister.
He had been in the department for less than three years. Meister ultimately worked his way up to his current position. Meister called taking over the project more luck and using his gift of resourcefulness than anything.
“Literally, within 24 hours, we had an invitation to come,” he said.
He credited a series of Iowa connections. Meister called a priest friend in the Hawkeye State which got him another Iowa contact at the U.S. Bishops’ Office and ultimately to the secretary who handled the pope’s scheduling at the time.
Meister also credited the papal encounter to an engaging hook. Both the Harlem Globetrotters and JPII had visited roughly 120 countries at the time.
“The world’s most traveled team needs the world’s most traveled pope,” Meister said.
Team representatives, including Meister, presented him with a Number 75 team jersey and made him an honorary member.
Today, the Harlem Globetrotters have showcased their iconic talents in 122 countries and territories on six continents, often breaking down cultural and societal barriers while providing fans with their first-ever basketball experience. This fall marks its 90th anniversary tour as “Ambassadors of Goodwill.”
To celebrate, Meister thought it appropriate to recruit Pope Francis, “the People’s Pope,” whose genuine interactions with people of all backgrounds, abilities and physical appearances have inspired the masses. Pope Francis would be named only the ninth Honorary Harlem Globetrotter in team history.
“Non-Catholics make comments to me all the time how much they love him,” Meister said.
He began the same series of faxed letters to request a meeting with Pope Francis as he did 15 years earlier. This time, Msgr. Peter Bui, who served at Christ the King until he was called to assist the Holy Father with charity work, helped a bit. Email follow-ups ensured the faxes were addressed.
More importantly, Msgr. Bui reminded his former parishioner to have faith when there were still a few unknowns upon arrival in Vatican City. Everything worked out fine.
Pope Francis on sports
“Pope Francis was so sincere, so humble. His personality was amazing. He was laughing, joking with the players,” said Meister, who took four Harlem Globetrotters members with him. They gave him a framed, Number 90 jersey and helped him learn how to balance a spinning ball on one finger.
“What stuck out most — when we left, he shook our hands and asked us to pray for him.”
Meister said the estimated five-minute visit with Pope Francis in Vatican Square felt long. Repeated encounters between Christ’s vicar on earth and the poor and elderly of the world, regardless of religious affiliation continue to inspire the Mesa Catholic.
“He wants to be among the people — no special privileges. He’s very humble,” Meister said.
Kurt Schneider, chief executive officer for the Harlem Globetrotters, also noted the pope’s servant heart.
“His tireless work for the well-being of the poor and elderly, his humanitarian efforts and his commitment to bridge gaps between people of various cultures are ways the Harlem Globetrotters also aspire to touch lives around the world,” Schneider said in a statement, “He embodies the Globetrotters’ efforts to provide service, smiles and sportsmanship globally.”
This marks the eighth time the Globetrotters have had an audience with a pope. Its team members can now count the number of pontiffs they’ve met on one hand.
The first meeting was with Pope Pius XII in 1951 and again a year later. The team met St. John XXIII in 1959 and 1963, Pope Paul VI in 1968 and JPII in 1986 and 2000.