Guess who sat next to Pope Francis at the dinner table during a recent retreat organised by the Vatican Congregation for Bishops? Parramatta’s Bishop Vincent Long OFM Conv was on a retreat in Italy with fellow bishops from 2-16 September when the Holy Father paid a visit.
“I spent two weeks in a mountain near La Verna, which is the place where St Francis received the sacred stigmata,” Bishop Vincent said. “While I did not witness the Transfiguration or receive the stigmata, I can assure you that it was wonderful to be there. The retreat was hosted by the Sisters of the Divine Master and preached by three wise Jesuits.
“It was bookended by the canonisation of Mother Teresa at the beginning and the Papal Audience at the end. I got lucky when, unwittingly, I was given a prime position (well, a bit of quick thinking and pushing helped). I got the best seat in the dining room at Santa Marta.
“While enjoying my ‘John the Beloved Disciple’ moment (pictured), I spoke to his Holiness about a few things close to my heart. I introduced myself to him as Bishop of Parramatta and a former boat person. I raised the issue of asylum seekers in Australia and our government’s harsh offshore detention policy.
“The Holy Father commended the way Italy handles the asylum seeker crisis and grieved the cold-heartedness with which some other countries act towards them.
“I also spoke to him about the opposition both from within the Church and the secular forces in respect of his leadership on a number of issues such as climate change, the person-centred economy and concern for the marginalised.
“His simple answer and his gesture left a deep impression on me: ‘I seek to be authentic.’
“Pope Francis made me feel completely at home and without fear. When he asked me if I wanted wine and then poured it into my glass, it was as though the Servant Jesus came to life for me there and then.
“It was a privileged moment and an unforgettable experience. I thank God for it and I am more determined to follow the example of the Servant Leadership of Pope Francis.”