When Pope Francis entered St. Patrick’s Cathedral for Evening Prayer in New York City on Sept. 24, my initial reaction was to make the sign of the cross. It was the first time I had been in the presence of a pontiff; it was a natural expression of my Catholic faith.

While I did take some photos, I made sure that my first sighting of a pope was not through a viewfinder. I wanted this memory in my mind, not as a digital file.

As communications counsel to the Diocese of Buffalo, I volunteered to assist with the massive media effort organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Archdiocese of New York. They handled more than 8,000 media requests from about 1,800 media outlets, from virtually every country in the world. In New York, there were about 80 Catholic communicators from dioceses across the country, assisting with the endeavor.

My assignments included working with a television camera operator in the back of the cathedral and with still photographers at the September 11 Memorial, where the pope took part in an interfaith prayer service.

We also assisted the VAMP, the Vatican Media Pool, a collection of international journalists from news organizations who travel with the Holy Father. They often work in cramped quarters, like the rest of the media. It does not look like a very glamorous lifestyle. This experience gave me newfound respect for reporters.

There is a lot of “hurry up and wait” (due to travel and security, media had to arrive at St. Patrick’s Cathedral six hours ahead of schedule), they often work in cramped quarters, and while they can be pretty cynical, they maintained a good sense of humor. Many commented that the U.S. Bishops and the archdiocese did an excellent job of making sure they were in their locations well in advance of the pope’s arrival.

Security for the papal visit was led by the Secret Service. Not surprisingly, it was incredibly tight at the September 11 Memorial.

My final duty was at the media Filing Center located in the Marriott Marquis on Times Square. It was the location for two evening briefings with Father Federico Lombardi, a Jesuit priest (like the pope) who serves as director of the Holy See Press Office. What impressed me most was his ability to deftly answer some very difficult questions in English, not his first language.

Bishop Richard J. Malone, bishop of Buffalo, made an astute observation about the pope’s visit, when he said he hopes people listen to Pope Francis’ challenge. “There’s such charisma there, that for some people, that’s where it stops. They’re fascinated by him. The question is: Do we get beyond his style, his tone, his charisma, and listen to the essence of what he is saying? He’s not only challenging us to work for a better world, but also reminding us of the importance of God in our lives. We don’t want to miss his message.”

It is taking me some time to reflect on my papal experience and what it means. No question, it was the highlight of a rewarding career in broadcast journalism and public relations. Less than a week after being in the presence of the Holy Father, I do know one thing: I feel blessed, filled with gratitude, joy and peace, for having been given a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Kevin A. Keenan is president of Keenan Communications Group and serves as Communications Counsel to the Diocese of Buffalo.  Originally Published in The Buffalo News, Oct. 4, 2015.

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