Eating with pope is a permanent memory; the menu, not so much

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

MADRID (CNS) — Lunch with Pope Benedict XVI was an unforgettable experience for 12 young people at World Youth Day. Just don’t ask them what they ate.

Pope Benedict XVI pretends to play a piano made out of cake after meeting young people for lunch in Madrid Aug. 19. (CNS/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

“I wasn’t very hungry,” said Aurora Maria Almagro, 21, of Spain. “The food wasn’t the most important thing. We didn’t eat meat today because it’s Friday.”

In what has become a World Youth Day tradition, the pope sat down for lunch Aug. 19 with a young man and young woman representing the host country — Spain, in this case — and a male and female each representing five continents.

Ten of the diners were chosen by lot from among the international volunteers who helped prepare World Youth Day. The young man from New Zealand and the young woman from Australia were chosen by their bishops.

The menu included a soup, a fish dish and ice cream, but the young people were not more specific.

Michelle Hatfield, a 22-year-old from Stafford, Va., called lunch “an amazing experience.”

“The Holy Father is the father of the church and he guides us all. That’s what lunch was like. It was like eating lunch with your family: your father and people you have been working with and really care about.”

No one guided the conversation, she said, and no one decided who would talk next.

“It just came naturally. It’s like eating dinner with your family: You all listen, you all talk, but there’s no set structure.”

Most of the conversation, she said, involved the young people telling the pope about their lives and about the lives of young adults in their countries.

Hatfield, who has been working in the World Youth Day office in Madrid for five months, said she really wanted to give the pope something from the States, “but I have nothing” and she couldn’t go back just to get something.

The young people were seated at a round table with the pope and Cardinal Antonio Rouco Varela of Madrid.

Eva Janosikova, 28, of Slovakia and Ya-Chen Chuang, 25, of Taiwan sat on either side of the pope.

“It was awesome. I wasn’t expecting that,” said Janosikova, who was among the first to greet the pope and go sit down. She went to the far side of the table, assuming she would be next to the cardinal.

“We prayed. He sat down and he opened the menu, but it was upside down, so I was just helping him. It was really cute,” she said. “He surprised me by his listening very actively and being interested in others.”

Martin Leung-Wai, a 25-year-old from Auckland, New Zealand, said the luncheon “has made my World Youth Day experience the experience of a lifetime.”

“Having lunch with the Holy Father is something you tell your …. family and friends and future generations about,” he said. When asked why he hesitated to say it was something you tell your grandchildren about, he said he was one of many at World Youth Day considering a vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

Leung-Wai also invited Pope Benedict to New Zealand.

“He was laughing,” the young man said.