If he’s not the envy of the entire world, millions of people would at the very least love to have a papal encounter that mirrored what Andrew Meyer experienced.
The University of Mary student from Wahpeton, ND, traveled to the school’s Rome campus in early January with his classmates to study for a four-month semester — knowing his life will be forever changed. But he didn’t know just how life-changing it would be.
Just three weeks into his stay, he and two dozen of his classmates were at a papal audience in the Paul VI Auditorium Jan. 21. Typically held in St. Peter’s Square, this would be one of the few audiences for Pope Francis in the auditorium. But Meyer knew this would potentially put him just a handshake away from the Holy Father.
Pope Francis, flanked by security guards and people’s outstretched arms hoping for a touch, a smile or even a selfie, walked down the aisle on the opposite side towards Meyer. Then, at just the right moment Pope Francis switched sides. Nervous and excited all at the same time, Meyer realized this was the perfect time and perhaps the only chance he’ll ever get to put his plan into action.
“My goal for the semester was to trade zucchettos, or skullcaps, with Pope Francis,” said Meyer via email, a sophomore triple majoring in theology, philosophy and Catholic studies. “When he went by greeting people, I held mine out to him, and after giving me a little smirk, he grabbed it and took his off, compared the size to his, tried it on and showed it proudly to his smiling security guard, then traded with me. With a little help from Mary and the saints, I succeeded.”
Excitement, pandemonium, and pictures immediately ensued. “I was having a huge adrenaline rush and everyone standing nearby took selfies with me,” explained Meyer. “It was really surreal. I was shaking and really relieved it had worked. I was trying to still live in the moment of seeing and touching Pope Francis at the audience, but it was hard to contain my excitement of having the zucchetto in my hands.”
Zucchetto exchanges vary with each pope. Meyer believes Pope Francis does it only on rare occasions. “When he does take a zucchetto, he often will wear it for a few seconds before returning it. I know complete switches are not too common.”
Dr. Don Briel, the Blessed John Henry Newman Chair of Liberal Arts at the University of Mary agrees. “The history of trading zucchettos is a modern phenomenon that became popular with Pope John Paul II when he began engaging and interacting more with crowds. Since it is still a very uncommon occurrence, anyone fortunate enough to trade or receive a zucchetto from the Holy Father should feel very fortunate and blessed.”
Deacon Jim Trant, director of the diaconate for the Diocese of Phoenix, counted himself among those suspected lucky few nearly 16 months ago. He initiated a zucchetto exchange while at a general audience in Rome. Like with Meyer, the pontiff compared sizes and tried it on. Photos on display at the Diocesan Pastoral Center capture the event. The pontiff’s zucchetto sits in between them.
Meyer suspected the inside of the zucchetto to be made of calfskin because it smelled like leather.
“I haven’t gotten up the guts to try it on, and I don’t know if I will,” Meyer said. “I did try on the one I bought for him and it didn’t feel like much, but he doesn’t have quite as much hair as me.”
Meyer planned the exchange once he got accepted to study at University of Mary’s Rome campus back in December 2013. He’s currently in Rome with 24 peers who are from various cities around the Upper Midwest.
“Since we are with each other all the time, we almost act as a family, so I view this as something we succeeded at together — not just me,” said Meyer, who can’t believe he’s witnessed so much in such a short period of time at Mary’s Rome campus. “The feeling of awe witnessing these events or stepping foot into St. Peter’s Square for the first time are moments that are priceless. Rome has been above and beyond what I had hoped for.”
So, what plans does Meyer have for his new, extraordinary and cherished souvenir from Pope Francis? “I am really not sure myself,” said Meyer. “It’s safe to say that the zucchetto will end up in one of three places: at the University of Mary campus; my home parish of St. John’s, or I will just hold onto it myself. Assuming I would hold onto it I still have plans to give people a chance to see it. Realizing that I have something worn by the pope himself is mind-blowing, and something I will always hold dear.”