Pope Francis was already in his car, headed away from the Philadelphia airport, when he saw Michael Keating.
The whole family, from Elverson, Pa., was on the tarmac to watch Michael’s father, Chuck Keating, lead the Bishop Shanahan high school band as it was playing for the pope.
The car stopped.
The pope emerged, walked up to Michael in his wheelchair, and blessed the boy, who has severe disabilities.
Michael’s mother Kristin Keating said she could not understand Francis’s words, which were not in English. But she understood the emotion: “Love.”
“His hands were so soft. When he kissed my son, it was wonderful,” she said. “I know it’s life-changing for our family.”
Chuck Keating, the boy’s father, said, “I had to turn away. It was just overwhelming.” Pope Francis’s encounters with children — in which he often kisses them, bends over to make eye contact and smiles with clear pleasure — have become some of his most iconic moments during his historic six-day trip to the U.S. His embrace of a five-year-old daughter of two undocumented immigrants outside of the White House on Wednesday quickly went viral.
Among the modern ills the pope talks about include the struggles of youth: isolation, broken families and unemployment. Children were included in his address to Congress on Thursday, when he said many children “face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults.”
Students squealed and some cried as he took selfies next to Our Lady Queen of Angels school in Harlem. As they sang for him later, he put his hand up to his ear and gestured the children to sing louder. Two students showed him how they use a touch screen in their school, taking his hand and dragging his finger across the screen. His eyes twinkled as he waved, giving the children the peace sign with his two fingers. In the gym of the school, he caught a blue soccer ball with signatures written all over it.
He spoke to the children, many from immigrant backgrounds, soothingly, as though he could intuit what they must be feeling.
“They tell me that one of the nice things about this school is that some of its students come from other places, even from other countries. That is nice!,” he told them. “Even though I know that it is not easy to have to move and find a new home, new neighbors and new friends. It is not easy. At the beginning it can be hard, right? Often you have to learn a new language, adjust to a new culture, even a new climate. There is so much to learn! And not just at school.
“The good thing is that we also make new friends, we meet people who open doors for us, who are kind to us. They offer us friendship and understanding, and they try to help us not to feel like strangers. To feel at home.”
During Friday’s Mass in Madison Square Garden, he extended his hand to bless several children in wheelchairs. On Saturday, the pope also kissed several babies on his way to Independence Hall, including one in cowboy hat and one wearing a mitre. He was also given a colorful doll by a little girl.
“For me? Thank you!…But she doesn’t look like you!” he told her, grinning.
On Saturday, Chuck Keating recalled his family’s encounter with the pope.
“My faith has always been strong,” he added. “Michael has always been a blessing. Michael’s the one who taught me the value of a hug and a kiss. He is a gift from God.”
Michael’s grandmother, his twin brother Christopher and his 13-year-old sister Katie were also there when Michael was blessed.
Katie said that Michael, who often smiles when she plays his favorite music like Bob Marley and ABBA, looked up at the pope and smiled at him.
Katie and Christopher stroked Michael’s arm lovingly as reporters crowded around them after the blessing.
“I can’t even explain, I was just so happy,” Katie Keating said. She and Kristin cried during their moment next to the pope,
and Chuck said he got teary eyed too.