by Joe Bollig
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Third time’s a charm for Tom Racunas — at least when it comes to meeting the pope.
Racunas, lead consultant for the archdiocesan special-needs ministry, was in Rome Oct. 20-22 to attend a world conference about catechesis and persons with disabilities.
This was his third journey to Rome — the first being in 1970, when he saw Pope Paul VI during a general audience in St. Peter’s Square.
This third trip included a more intimate papal encounter.
Racunas was one of approximately 450 delegates from five continents who traveled to Rome for the event, “Catechesis and Persons with Disabilities: A Necessary Engagement for the Promotion of the New Evangelization.”
The event was sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and The Kairos Forum, which is based in the United Kingdom. The conference was held at the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome.
“The conference was really about the theology and philosophy of disability,” said Racunas.
“[The conference] covered topics like what we believe, the protection of persons with disabilities, prayer, the celebration of the Christian mystery and the celebration of the sacraments as occasions of catechesis,” he continued. “Saturday afternoon was focused on the more practical applications of the theology and philosophy in everyday practice. We listened to a number of practitioners.”
Those who attended the conference included people with disabilities, directors of diocesan ministries, theologians, philosophers, family members of people with disabilities, catechists, directors of religious education, parish priests, several bishops and a good-size contingent of deaf Catholics from the five continents.
Three weeks before the conference, the attendees received a revised agenda with a surprise: It included a private audience with Pope Francis.
At about noon, members of the group were directed to a Baroque marbled and frescoed room — the Clementine Hall. After they were seated, the doors swung open and Pope Francis entered the room. They all stood and cheered.
Archbishop Rino Fisichella, the president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization, spoke to Pope Francis on behalf of the group.
“And then His Holiness spoke to us, in Italian,” said Racunas.
But instead of leaving after he spoke, the pontiff stayed an hour longer in order to meet each of the 450 attendees.
“Walking up to greet him, I kept thinking, ‘Don’t mess this up,’” said Racunas. “Be articulate. Look him in the eye.”
“The minute you approach him, he makes eye contact immediately,” recalled Racunas. “He has this joyful presence about him, this gentleness about him. . . . He just has this beautiful presence. He seems so peaceful — which I’m sure he is.
“It was just remarkable.”
Racunas said, “Thank you, Holy Father. I’m from Kansas City. Thank you, and God bless you.”
The handlers gave the attendees only three no-noes: Don’t engage the pope in conversation, no selfies and no hugs.
Racunas had some rosaries in his hands for his grandsons, who will make their first Communion this year.
“He looked down, saw them, put his hands on my hands, and just looked at me and smiled. He didn’t have to say anything,” said Racunas.
The conference was a great success, said Racunas. He got a sense of what was happening not only in the United States, but around the world.
“I hoped to learn some new things and bring some fresh ideas back to the archdiocese,” he said. “It validated what I’ve been trying to say and do in building this ministry in the archdiocese. There were several practical suggestions that I will be able to share with parishes, particularly models of catechesis for children with disabilities.”