Students and professors met the first Jesuit pope, Francis I, during the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs conference “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives” in Rome this past December.

The conference, which ran from Dec. 13 to Dec. 14 at Pontifical Urbaniana University, was organized by the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project and supported by Baylor University, the Witherspoon Institute, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation and the program on Religion and Innovation in Human Affairs. The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty contributed organizational and planning support.

The conference, a culmination of the two-year study on Christian contributions to freedom throughout history and in modern Christian minorities, included presentations by research fellows on their findings, such as Rebecca Shah’s work on the transformative effect of Christianity on underprivileged Indian women.

The RFP’s goals included increasing awareness of worldwide religious persecution against Christians and illustrating the societal destabilization caused by this persecution. “Our most basic goal was to highlight the contributions of Christians to their own societies, including contributions to the concept and practice of religious freedom for all,” RFP Director Tom Farr said. “When you repress or exile minority groups, such as Christians and others, who have contributed so much to your own societies, you are not only harming them — you are harming yourselves.”

On the last morning of the conference, the speakers and staff, including Farr, Associate Director Timothy Shah and students Kevin Sullivan (SFS ’14) and Nick Fedyk (SFS ’14), took part in a private meeting with Pope Francis.

The encounter occurred in the Clement VIII room in the Apostolic Palace.

“Walking into the papal apartments and then meeting the Holy Father is a beautiful combination. The grandeur, history and tradition of the building demonstrate the glory of the Church, while the humility and personability of the Holy Father provide the much-needed human element,” Sullivan wrote in an email.

Pope Francis posed for a photograph with Farr and Shah, holding Sullivan’s Georgetown scarf. “His gesture and good humor with the Georgetown scarf I provided for the picture (I wanted to give it as a gift but he refused!) connected our history and mission of the university — building the Kingdom of God by molding men and women for others — to that of the representative of the Church,” Sullivan wrote. “It truly became an instant moment in Georgetown history.” At the end of the meeting, Pope Francis received a Spanish copy of Tim Shah’s book “Religious Freedom: Why Now?” from Farr. The Pope left with a request for the group: “Pray for me!”

Those in attendance carefully noted the words of Pope Francis upon their meeting.

“Although he does not know English very well, he carefully chose his words when he asked us: ‘Pray for me.’ There was the Holy Father, a man so full of prayer and blessings and baby-kissing, and yet he was asking us to pray for him,” Fedyk said.

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