By Father Frank Mann
The year 1962 saw the beginning of work on the stunning Vatican Pavilion for the New York World’s Fair. According to the official guidebook for the structure, “The impressive, oval-shaped building, with its crown of gold and imposing wing wall, contains a chapel and an exhibit area.”
The most exciting detail of the Vatican Pavilion was the innovative moving walkway that brought the viewer face to face with Michelangelo’s Pieta. On April 2, 1964, the Pieta began its journey as it left the Basilica of Saint Peter in Vatican City for the first time since the artist placed it there.
For myself, the most exciting event at the Vatican Pavilion was the visit by Pope Paul VI. He was the first pontiff to visit the United States. The day he arrived at the Vatican Pavilion, I was determined to meet him.
I was 12 years old at the time and I had in my possession two philatelic first-day-of-issue covers commemorating the opening of the Vatican Pavilion. The envelopes bore the postmark of April 1964, with special postal stamps bearing images of Pope Paul and the Pieta. I anxiously wanted to get them both autographed by the pontiff.
I waited for what seemed like eternity. Suddenly, I saw the Pope exit the rear of the pavilion surrounded by various bishops, lay people and priests.
I shouted: “Pope Paul!” He quickly turned around and walked toward me.
He looked deeply into my eyes and said with a beaming smile, “Hello, my friend. It’s a blessing to see you!”
I asked him if he could sign my items and he said, “I will only do that for you because I know beyond doubt that you will be a priest someday.”
How could he have possibly known that? Pope Paul told me, “God has chosen you and He will give you the strength to follow Him.”
He then took the envelopes and autographed them for me. He placed his hands on my shoulders and said, “If I am still around when you become a priest, I want you to come to Rome and visit me. But I think I might be home with God in heaven by then. If that is the case, I will watch over you to make sure you will be a good priest for Jesus.”
In 1976, when I was studying at the major seminary, I wrote to Pope Paul to tell him I was about two years or so away from being ordained. I asked in my letter if he remembered me from the Vatican Pavilion. I was so surprised to receive an authentically signed color photo from him dated Jan. 8, 1976.
He attached a note: “How could I forget you, Francis? I told you that you would be a priest someday!”
Pope Paul passed away a few months before my ordination to the priesthood. To this day, I feel he most certainly watches over me and guides my path. God bless St. Pope Paul VI!
Father Mann serves as a parochial vicar at St. Martin of Tours parish, Bushwick.