Pope Francis holds a double-secret meeting with Bishop Morrie

This story appears in the Bishop Morrie feature series. View the full series.
(Pat Marrin)
(Pat Marrin)

by Michael Leach

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I have no reason to doubt him. My classmate Morrie, the bishop of Paris, Kan., has never lied to me. His partner in the caper, Fr. Rick Malloy, a Jesuit chaplain, confirmed it. This is what they told me transpired at St. Joseph University in Philadelphia on Sept. 26.

Pope Francis, with Archbishop Charles Chaput on his right, Msgr. Mark Miles (dubbed the "cute" translator by Crux News) on his left, and two men in black behind them, was walking down the Jesuit residence hallway toward the chapel. Suddenly a door opens and Malloy jumps out. "Your Holiness," he says, "please hear my confession."

The archbishop says, "Malloy? Are you still here?"

Malloy says, "Please, Your Holiness. It must be you that hears my confession."

The archbishop says, "Holy Father, I know this man. You don't have three hours."

The pope smiles at Malloy, and nods. "Sí, cómo no."

Francis makes a gesture to the monsignor who gives a look to the men in black who check the room and come back. "È chiaro," they report.

Malloy and the pope are in the room with the door closed. A hand, as if from a horror movie, reaches out from the bottom of the bed and grabs the pope's ankle.

"Maurice!" says the pope. "Por dios, que haces?" He grabs his cassock and whips it away. Bishop Morrie crawls out from under the bed and Malloy helps him to his feet.

"I'm too old for this," Morrie says. "But I had to see you. They're trapping you, Goalie! They're setting you up."

It turns out that, decades ago, the younger Fr. Morrie volunteered for two years as a Maryknoll priest associate in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and he and the younger Bishop Jorge Bergoglio worked together in the villas miserias, or slums. Bergoglio's English was terrible. Morrie's Spanish was worse. They became fast friends. On Sundays, they played soccer with the neighborhood men in a cleared-out section of a garbage dump. Bergoglio had only one lung, so he played goalie.

"Goalie," Morrie says, "that woman, that woman Kim Davis you met in D.C.? It was a setup. She's the patron saint of homophobia! If this gets out, you'll have made her a mártir!"

Francis looks at Malloy? "Cómo?"

Malloy explains.

"Cálmate," says the pope. "I know nothing about this. El papa sees todo el mundo. Beside, why you have to see me from under a bed?"

"Because my brother pointy hats didn't invite me to any of the ceremonies, that's why. I'm obispo non grata, you know that. I can see Paris from my back porch and they never will but you'd think ... oh, never mind, non habemus much tiempo. I just wanted to warn you. Be careful."

Francis smiles and hugs Morrie. "Gracias, mi buen amigo. Now tell me, what can the pope do for you?"

"Make sure the synod allows married and divorced folks to receive Communion, that's all. That's all I want. You know that."

Francis nods. Morrie and Bergoglio have had this conversation many times before. It pained them in their ministry. For Morrie, it went deeper. When he was a child, Morrie often lived with his Aunt Lucille and Uncle Sal. He has told me about them many times also.

Aunt Lucille's first husband used to get drunk and beat her savagely. When she was pregnant, he told her to get an abortion. She wouldn't. He threw her down the stairs so she would lose the baby. Morrie's cousin Marie was born healthy and Aunt Lucille protected her until one day her husband got so mad at the crying baby that he threw her against a wall. Aunt Lucille threw herself over the baby and took his kicks to shield her.

Lucille tried to get an annulment. The church wouldn't grant it. She got a divorce to protect her child.

Years later, Lucille married Sal. "He was my father, my real father," Marie used to say. "The most loving man you'll ever know. There was no better Catholic marriage."

As a seminarian, Morrie tried to persuade his Aunt Lucille that God wanted her to receive Jesus in the sacrament, but she just couldn't. She and Sal went to Mass every Sunday but never received because the church said so. When Morrie became a priest, he thought she'd listen to him, but she just couldn't. The church had spoken.

"I couldn't persuade her. I couldn't persuade her," Morrie now tells Francis. He is sobbing. "No matter how hard I tried ... it was the rule ... she helped raise me ... I couldn't persuade her to let Jesus enter her heart where he already was ... Papa."

Francis embraces Morrie and pats his back many times. "I know," he says. "Comprendo. I will do everything in my power. Te lo prometo."

Morrie wipes his eyes with the back of his hand. "Do you think it will happen?"

"Sería un pecado si esto no sucediera. If it does, the angels will sing. Dios desea la misericordia, y no sacrificio. If baby steps taken, next time will be giant step. You'll see. Your tía en el cielo will see to it."

There's a knock at the door.

"Gracias, Papa," Morrie says. "Courage."

"Peace, Maurice."

The pope turns to look at Malloy, who is speechless. "And what can the Holy Father do you for you, mi conspirador?"

Malloy gulps. This is what he manages to say: "Pray for me, Holy Father. Don't forget."

[Michael Leach shepherds the Soul Seeing columns for NCR and is editor at large of Orbis Books.]

A version of this story appeared in the Nov 6-19, 2015 print issue under the headline: Pope Francis holds a double-secret meeting with Bishop Morrie.

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