GREAT FALLS, Va. — Four-year-old Brendan Kelly first met 81-year-old Pope John Paul II on Sept. 4, in a meeting made possible by the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
While it was the first time that the two had physically met, it wasn't the first time that the Pope had heard of Brendan.
Last October, Brendan was facing fevers of 106 degrees which his parents, Frank and Maura Kelly, were unable to bring down. Born with Down syndrome, Brendan was diagnosed with leukemia and spent much of November, December and January hospitalized and receiving chemotherapy.
“We love the Holy Father. He's a hero,” said Frank Kelly, senior vice president for government affairs for Charles Schwab in Washington. “We pray for him a lot as a family. Every time he's on television or in the newspaper we point him out to our children. He's part of our life.”
As it turns out, while Brendan was praying for the Holy Father, the Holy Father was praying for Brendan. Unbeknownst to the Kelly family, their neighbors had taken a photo of Brendan from their home and brought it with them on a visit to Rome in January of 2001. When they met with the Holy Father, they gave him the photo and asked him to pray for Brendan.
“Instead of just blessing the photo,” explained Mr. Kelly, “the Pope asked if he could keep it. We only found out about this afterwards.”
Disney World vs. the Pope
With the help of Brendan's doctors, Brendan was nominated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation — a nonprofit agency that grants approximately 10,000 wishes to children facing life-threatening illnesses each year.
Make-A-Wish Foundation representatives came to the Kelly home to interview Brendan.
“They offered him Disney World, meeting Cal Ripken,” said Mr. Kelly, “they told him about some of the other amazing things they have done for kids — sending children to Fiji or taking them in submarines. Brendan's request was, ‘Meet Pope. Meet the Pope.”
At first the foundation had some difficulty understanding how a 4-year-old could make such a wish. When they called to inquire, Maura Kelly explained to them, “I know that it's hard to understand, but let me tell you why this is Brendan's wish. He has a picture of the Pope in his room and we pray for him. He loves to attend Mass every day, and the priests are his best friends.”
A photo in the family living room also may have played a part. At the age of 20, while studying in Europe, Maura had an opportunity to meet with John Paul II. The photo pictures Brendan's mother shaking hands with the Pope.
“It is unusual for a child to wish to meet the Pope,” said Anne Strauss, media relations manager for Make-A-Wish. She estimated that only about 6% of children wish to meet a celebrity. “Usually those are sports figures, actors or singers,” said Strauss. In the foundation's 20-year history only three children have asked to meet the Pope.
Brendan got his wish. On Aug. 31 the foundation flew Brendan, his parents and his brother and sister to Rome where they awaited word on their planned meeting.
Because of a hotel error the meeting almost didn't take place. Staff at the Victoria Hotel failed to let the Kelly's know that the Vatican had called three times. “We were supposed to be there Monday morning [Sept. 3]. The hotel put the messages into our box but never notified us that we had a message,” explained Mr. Kelly. “We didn't get the messages until Monday afternoon.”
Maura called the Vatican switchboard operator and was put in touch with a nun. After explaining the situation the nun spoke with a monsignor and called back minutes later. She told them to arrive the next day promptly at 7:30 a.m.
Pope: 2nd Most Important
On Tuesday, Sept. 4, the family arrived at the gates of Castel Gandolfo and checked in. After being greeted they were escorted to the Holy Father's chapel. “We were in this simple country chapel and suddenly out came the Holy Father,” recalled Mr. Kelly.
“It was as if we were going to Mass in our own church; he wasn't the most important thing there,” he said. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was more important.
After Mass, the family was ushered into a receiving area and seated in a U-shaped circle to await the Holy Father's arrival. As soon as John Paul entered the room smiling and talking, Brendan broke away and ran at him.
“There was unbelievable love in the Holy Father's eyes,” said Mr. Kelly. Brendan remained by the Pope's side as he greeted everyone. “In between greeting people he would glance down to wink or wave at Brendan. It was beautiful.”
Said Mrs. Kelly, “I was struck by the fact that Brendan immediately connected with him. It's very unusual for Brendan to run up to someone that he has never met before.”
The family finally had their turn. Pope John Paul II greeted each of them, kissed Brendan, and then they gathered for a family photo. The family then went back to their positions.
“I felt like we were a bunch of kids standing around a father. We were like one large family,” said Mr. Kelly.
The Holy Father blessed the group of 19 and then left. “As he walked through the door Brendan broke away again and ran far enough so that he could see the Pope. He waved his hand and said ‘Bye, Pope’ explained Frank. “No one expected the Pope to come back into the room, but he did. He came back into the room to shake Brendan's hand and say goodbye.”
Mollie Kelly, Brendan's big sister, is 10. “The Pope always had a smile when Brendan was standing next to him,” she said.
After the meeting, Mrs. Kelly asked the children, “Wasn't that great? Did you love meeting the Holy Father?”
Joseph and Mollie replied, “Didn't he love Brendan so much?”
Said Mrs. Kelly, “The whole family knew that this was Brendan's moment, this was his time.”
Mr. Kelly added that, “It's unbelievable how Brendan's story has touched people,” he said. “Many people, those that I do and do not know, have asked for Brendan's prayers.”
Doctors say that Brendan's leukemia is technically in remission, but the family knows that they must keep praying. Brendan has another 2-3 years of chemo — a therapy that weakens his immune system. “The big threat is not so much the cancer,” explained Mr. Kelly. “He could catch a cold and die.”
In addition to the photographs and their memories, as a token of their visit, the Pope gave each of the family members a rosary. “These aren't meant for the closet,” said Mr. Kelly. “The Pope gave these to us, so we better start using them more.”
Mrs. Kelly said she learned more about the Holy Father from the trip. “It was remarkable to see how much the Pope could love Brendan. People need to know that he loves all of us that much and that he prays for us.”
Brendan remembers the experience vividly. “He talks about it a lot,” laughed Joseph, Brendan's 7-year-old brother.
Added Mrs. Kelly: “He just keeps saying, ‘Remember our trip? I met my friend the Pope.’”
Tim Drake writes from St. Cloud, Minn.