by Jonathan Luxmoore
KRAKOW, Poland (CNS) — Pope Francis has a “stomach of iron” and considers the German Richard Wagner his favorite composer, said young Catholics who lunched privately with him July 30 during World Youth Day.
Thirteen World Youth Day organizers from a dozen countries shared the meal at the cardinal’s residence. They were chosen by lottery to attend the 80-minute encounter, during which questions were put to the pope in Italian and Spanish with simultaneous translations. Organizers said participants were notified three weeks earlier of their selection from among World Youth Day volunteers of at least three months’ standing.
Malgorzata Krupnik, who was one of two Poles at the lunch, told Catholic News Service she had been “very nervous and unsure what to expect,” but said her stress had vanished as soon as the pope arrived.
“As we sat there, he said, ‘Speak to me; I want to talk to you.’ He was really optimistic, lighthearted and humorous, and not at all stiff and severe,” Krupnik said.
“We talked about practical things, not just philosophy. It was really like being at home — and at the end, he hugged each of us, smiling, in a very Franciscan way. I felt an amazing internal peace to meet him so closely.”
Paula Mora of Colombia said Pope Francis advised them to be “guided by their hearts” when seeking to evangelize.
“We asked how he’d felt when he was elected pope, and he said he’d experienced the gift of inner peace from God, which is still with him,” said Mora said. “You can feel this peace and humility when you speak to him. It was as if we were children meeting their father over a normal family lunch.”
Quan Vu Hong, a young Vietnamese on the World Youth Day’s organization committee, said he could barely contain his emotion and disbelief at having been among those chosen to dine with the pope.
“It’s the first time I have an opportunity to have a meal with one of the most important people in the world,” he told CNS. “I was chosen from among hundreds of thousands of young people, and I will never forget this day.”
Hong said he also had asked the pope how youths could live as faithful Christians in today’s world.
“[He told us] the first thing to do is to accompany others to a life of faith,” Hong said. The pope, he added, impressed upon them the importance of prayer and confession, even giving them tips on how to confess to a priest.
Hong also noted Pope Francis’ easygoing nature, saying it was the most touching quality of all.
“He took a selfie with us and joked around during lunch. It made us closer to him and we did not feel he was a pope anymore. He was a father for us,” Hong told CNS.
Fatima Leung-Wai, a 28-year-old Samoan from New Zealand, told CNS there was a “mix of emotions” at the meeting, adding that some youngsters had been moved to tears when a Ukrainian Catholic, Uliana Zurawczak, described conditions in her war-torn country.
She added that the pope declined to list his preferred reading, but said he routinely ate anything and had a “stomach of iron.”
The New Zealander, who gave up her engineer’s job to work as a World Youth Day volunteer, said Pope Francis was asked his opinion of Catholic charismatic communities and also described how he discovered his priestly vocation while making his confession at age 17. Later, she said, he again stressed the importance of regular confessions and advised young Catholics to “find another priest” if they disliked their regular confessor.
“As a young Catholic, trying my best to live the faith in today’s world, when it’s so easy not to believe, it was really important to meet an authority who was open, humble and at peace and would allow me to be myself,” she said. “If you’re going to follow the church, in all your daily struggles, you need to know its leader is genuine and can be trusted. But the pope also asked us to pray for him, since it’s not easy being the church’s leader.”
Poland’s Catholic information agency, KAI, said the youths ate a hearty traditional Polish meal with the pope, which included beef soup, rice with pieces of pork, as well as traditional dumplings, known as pierogi, and sernik, a popular Polish cheesecake made with a local curdled cheese known as twarog.
The Krakow Archdiocese’s deputy spokesman, Father Piotr Studnicki, told KAI the lunch was prepared by Sacred Heart sisters, who also had cooked for St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI during their visits to the city.