Pope Francis Meets with Georgetown Professors and Students

December 16, 2013 – A trip to Rome for a religious freedom conference became a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the six Georgetown professors, students and staff members who met Pope Francis this past Saturday.

The group was in Rome as part of an international conference on “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” at Pontifical Urbaniana University, organized by Georgetown’s Religious Freedom Project (RFP).

“He literally exudes humility and kindness in his very being,” said Kevin Sullivan (SFS’14), one of the students who met the pope. “He walks very intently, takes the time to make eye contact and smile at everyone in the room, and chuckles even though I don't think he understood some of our jokes.”

An Instant Moment

The RFP is part of the university’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Sullivan attended the private audience with the pope Saturday along with Tom Farr, RFP director; Timothy Shah, RFP associate director; classmate Nick Fedyk (SFS’14); staff members Kyle Vander Meulen and A.J. Nolte; and conference attendees.

“Walking into the papal apartments and then meeting the Holy Father was a beautiful combination,” Sullivan said. “His gesture and good humor with the Georgetown scarf I provided for the picture connected our history and mission of the university to that of the representative of the Church.”

“It truly became an instant moment in Georgetown history,” he added.

Profoundly Moving

Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs, stands to the left of Pope Francis, as he and Timothy Shah, RFP associate director, hold up a Georgetown scarf with the pontiff.

Tom Farr called the meeting “an exhilarating experience.” He gave the pontiff a Spanish-language copy of the book written by Shah, Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right (The Witherspoon Institute, 2012).

“[Pope Francis] had been made aware of the Religious Freedom Project's work, and of the purpose of our conference to explore and encourage Christian contributions to freedom for all people,” Shah said. "At the end of our time with the Holy Father, he told all of us, 'Go on!' This gentle exhortation was a profoundly moving affirmation and inspiration for our work, at a time when far too many people around the world are denied religious freedom."

The conference showcased the findings of a two-year study, by dozens of scholars, including Georgetown researchers, from around the world on Christianity’s political, religious and economic contributions to freedom, historically and in the contemporary world of Christian minorities.

“The conference was particularly timely given the ongoing persecu­tion of Christians and other religious minorities around the world," said Thomas Banchoff, Georgetown's vice president for global engagement and founding director of the Berkley Center. "Conference participants acknowledged Christianity’s record on freedom and human rights is mixed, but emphasized its positive contributions to civic, economic, religious, and political life, in interaction with other religious and secular traditions."