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Local seminarian serves Midnight Mass for Pope Francis

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Pope Francis, left, shakes hands with seminarian JohnPaul Hennessey before Christmas Eve Mass at the Vatican. (Courtesy Photo)

By John Stegeman
The Catholic Telegraph

For JohnPaul Hennessey, a 19-year-old college seminarian from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, a trip to the Holy Land and Rome became a more memorable experience than he ever expected when he and his classmates were given the opportunity to serve Midnight Mass with Pope Francis on Christmas Eve at St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Hennessey, a student at Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary in Indianapolis, and several classmates, went on a December pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then to Rome over Christmas. Of the group that continued on to Rome, they knew they were to attend the Christmas Mass, as their rector had requested tickets, but they had no idea the experience would bring them face-to-face with the Vicar of Christ.

JohnPaul Hennesey, a seminarian from of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, poses with a framed photograph of himself meeting Pope Francis and a ticket of his admission to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve 2014. (Courtesy Photo)

Why the Simon Brute seminarians ended up serving Midnight Mass at the Vatican remains a bit of a mystery according to Hennessey.  Father Bob Robeson, rector of Bishop Simon Brute College Seminary, explained that he had written an email seeking to concelebrate the Mass, and mentioned that he had seminarians with him. The Vatican response, written in Italian, mentioned the students would be required to attend a rehearsal and would need their cassocks.

“I read the message and I thought, ‘I wonder if they’re going to serve?’” Father Robeson said. “But I didn’t want to get their hopes up. I told them about the rehearsal and told them to bring their cassocks.

“My impression is (the Vatican) tries to offer opportunities to do things like that,” he added. “We had a couple guys over there one year who served at the Good Friday liturgy.”

Father Robeson was unable to continue with the seminarians to Rome as his mother passed away while the group was in the Holy Land. He gave the email with the details to someone remaining with the group. The night before the Mass someone took a closer look at the email from the Vatican and put things together. At the rehearsal, their suspicions were confirmed. Not only would they be serving the Mass, they would be meeting Pope Francis before hand.

“It was so surreal,” Hennessey said. “It blew all of our minds. We couldn’t comprehend why we got chosen. We’re minor seminarians, college seminarians. We’re studying philosophy, not theology right now. There’s so many other seminarians in Rome, you’d think they’d get higher priority.”

Shortly before the Mass, which began at 9:30 p.m. Rome time, the pope came out to meet the seminarians and shook hands with each one. After that, the seminarians vested the pope.

Father Robeson said the papal emcee told the seminarians, “Papa Francis always tells people who serve for him don’t worry about making a mistake. Just remember what you’re here for. The most important thing is to be prayerful and to enter into the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.’

“That’s really a good message for them,” Father Robeson added. “Of course we tell them this all the time here at the seminary.”

Hennessey has already had the picture of himself meeting Pope Francis, along with his ticket to the Mass, framed.

“You could see the real warmth in his presence and the real love that he has for each person, Hennessey said. “He seemed to genuinely care even if we only each met him for a couple of seconds.”

Hennessey told the pope Merry Christmas. Another seminarian asked Pope Francis to pray for Father Robeson’s mother.

“One of the guys asked him to pray for my mom because she had just passed away,” Father Robeson said. “When he asked him to pray for my mother (Pope Francis) said, ‘I will hold her in my heart.’ My dad got great consolation out of that.”

During the Mass, Hennessey carried a candle to the left of the crucifer near the front of the opening procession.

“I realized afterwards I just served one of the most important Masses in the Catholic Church second only to the Easter Vigil and I served it with the Vicar of Christ,” he said.

Father Robeson did watch the Mass on television and expressed his his approval for his seminarians’ performance.

“They did wonderful. They were outstanding,” he said. “They’re always good though. Our guys are very well trained. They did very wonderful.”

The Price Hill native said as great as the experience was, it confirmed for Hennessey that worldly milestones do not satisfy.

“I met the Vicar of Christ, but I’m not fully satisfied in my life,” he said. “The only way we’re going to be satisfied is when we’re in heaven.”

Should Hennessey’s minor seminary, and later his major seminary experience at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary of the West in Cincinnati, go as planned, he could be ordained a priest in 2022.

This story originally appeared in the February 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.

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