When Katie Rich and Ethan Mack, both A&S ’15, chose to study abroad in Rome, the two considered their future proximity to the Vatican, the governing body of the Catholic Church and residence of Pope Francis. They never imagined, however, that during their time abroad, they would have the opportunity to meet and exchange zucchettos with the pope during a papal audience.
“When I was in Rome I didn’t really know about the audiences,” Rich said. “I could never imagine getting that close to [Francis], let alone having that kind of interaction.”
Rich and Mack attended the weekly papal audience held every Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square. Thousands gather to witness the pope drive through the crowd, greeting and blessing those in attendance. He then makes his way onto a stage at the front of the Square where he reads the gospel and gives a short homily translated into six different languages. It was during their third and final participation in the papal audience-the same day Francis was honored as Person of the Year by Time-that Mack and Rich exchanged zucchettos, a cloth cap worn by Francis.
“Ethan and I had known two other people who had tried the same thing,” Rich said. “Both times [the pope] tried [the zucchettos] on and suggested that it was too big, so he gave it back to them, but they were still happy with that.”
The two tried their own luck their last Wednesday in Rome after Mack had purchased his own zucchetto from a local store for 50 euros. Rich recalls receiving a call from Mack after his purchase, asking her, “Are you in?,” and she eagerly accepted.
“At best, Ethan and I thought what happened with our friends would happen [to us],” Rich said. “We didn’t really have any expectations. Ethan was more hopeful than I.”
The key to what would be their success was buying a zucchetto that would fit Francis perfectly. “You have to magically know what size he is,” Rich said. “The two our friends had exchanged were too big, and that’s why he gave it back to them.”
Rich and Mack ventured to the Vatican at 6 a.m. in order to get a spot at a barrier close enough to make the exchange with Francis. Inscribed in their zucchetto read, “Boston College loves our Jesuit Pope!”
When Francis first drove by, he was facing the opposite way of the duo. “We screamed, ‘Papa,’ the Latin word for father, in order to get his attention,” Rich said. “When he finally looked at us, he was too far to reach the zucchetto we were holding out, so his guard reached for it.”
When Francis finally received the cap, he read the inscription, placed their zucchetto inside the one he was currently wearing, and gave a smile-the zucchetto was the perfect size and their plan had worked.
“He then placed ours on his head and gave the guard his own to give to us,” Rich said. “He then smiled at us. We can’t believe this whole thing happened.”
The two plan on giving the zucchetto to an organization for it to be preserved. “Ethan took it home over break and showed his whole family,” Rich said. “I have it now in my apartment and everyone thinks it’s so cool.”
Although the two have returned to campus this semester, they said they would never forget their exchange with Francis. “Whenever someone asks me what my favorite part of Rome was, I have to qualify with, ‘well, besides meeting the pope,’ because that was just crazy,” Rich said. “Ethan and I both agree that the zucchetto will mean a lot to us forever. It made me so happy to have that experience and to see him smile … it’s something I’ll remember forever.”