Brendan Kelly and the Pope: A Special Moment

This is a story that might make you forget, for a few moments, the terrible events of Sept. 11. It's about a K Street lobbyist, a corporate lawyer and a Senate aide who helped a member of their family gain access to a world figure, but not in the usual Washington way or for the usual purposes. The story begins with Brendan Kelly, a 4-year-old boy from Great Falls. He has Down syndrome and is seriously ill with leukemia. Brendan's father is Frank Kelly, senior vice president for government affairs for Charles Schwab, a financial services firm. His grandfathers are Frank Kelly Sr., a top aide to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), and Charles McCarthy Jr., a partner at the law firm of O'Connor & Hannan. All three often get to meet important people and have even been invited to the White House. But Brendan knows one of the most important people in the world. In fact, he's on a first name basis with Pope John Paul II. The story of Brendan's improbable friendship with the pope has an almost fairy tale quality. It began last summer when his parents, Frank and Maura Kelly, contacted the Make-a-Wish Foundation, which makes it possible for seriously ill children to meet anyone they want. They said their son keeps a photograph of the pope in his room, prays for him and would like to meet him. The foundation granted Brendan's wish two weeks ago, noting that he is only the second child who had asked to meet the pope. It flew him, his parents and his brother and sister to Rome on Aug. 31. The family checked into the exclusive Victoria Hotel near the Via Veneto and awaited word from the Vatican. Unfortunately, the hotel staff failed to notify the Kellys that the Vatican had called three times on Sept. 2 to tell them to come the next morning to attend a Mass celebrated by the pope at Castle Gandolfo, the pope's summer residence outside of Rome. The Kellys were crushed when they learned they had missed their private audience with the pope. Friends had told them if they missed the appointment, they wouldn't get another. They knew Brendan would be heartbroken and didn't dare tell him. "We started saying a lot of prayers," Maura Kelly said last week. "We didn't know what to do, so we called the Vatican switchboard. We got this nice nun and explained what happened. "She said, ‘You were supposed to be there this morning,’ and started to explain that she couldn't help us. She seemed angry at the hotel. Then she said, 'Let me talk to the monsignor.'" Minutes later, she called back and said, "Be there tomorrow morning at 7:30 - and don't be late." Brendan, his parents and brother and sister, Joseph, 7, and Mollie, 10, got up early and dressed in their Sunday best. They arrived at Castle Gandolfo well ahead of time and joined about 20 people in the pope's private chapel. Concerned that Brendan might cause a fuss, they took seats in the back row. "The pope came out and said Mass," Brendan's mother recalled. "It was very simple, just like our parish priest" at St. John Church in McLean. Afterward, they were led to an anteroom, where they were seated in U-fashion around a chair, waiting for the 81-year-old pontiff. "As soon as he came in, Brendan took off and stood right by his side," his mother said. The whole time, while the pope was greeting the other people, Brendan stood by him with his hand on his arm. He couldn't take his eyes off him. It was very beautiful." As he greeted the others, the pope would wink at Brendan and pat him on the head. Then it was the Kellys' turn, and they had their picture taken with him before returning to their seats with Brendan. The pope gave everyone his blessing, then rose and began walking slowly from the room. Just as he reached the door, Brendan ran towards the frail pontiff. "Bye, pope," he cried out. The pope turned around and walked back to where Brendan stood. Smiling, he leaned over and shook his hand and the Vatican photographer took another photograph. "It was really a special moment," said his mother, her voice still filled with wonder. "You could see that they just loved each other." As they left, the family realized that they'd witnessed something special. "I think everybody felt that it was Brendan's moment," his mother said. "The kids said, 'Yeah, you know, the pope really loves Brendan.'" The Kellys stayed in Rome for 10 days, with all expenses paid by the Make-a-Wish Foundation. They toured the Vatican, ate gelato at a sidewalk caf? on the Piazza Navona, visited a lot of churches and prayed for the pope, and for Brendan too, because they don't know how long they will have him. Then they took an Alitalia flight back to the United States. They arrived at Newark International Airport on the evening of Sept. 10 and caught another flight to Reagan National. A few hours later, Arab terrorists hijacked an airplane bound from Newark, N.J., for San Francisco, which they apparently planned to crash into the White House or the U.S. Capitol. The plane crashed in Pennsylvania, but if it had hit the Capitol, Sen. Inouye and Brendan's grandfather might well have been among the victims. Maybe it was just luck and the courage of the passengers who fought the attackers that prevented that from happening. Or maybe, if you believe in miracles, Brendan Kelly and his friend the pope had something to do with it.Eisele is editor of The Hill newspaper. 

Copyright ?2001 Arlington Catholic Herald.  All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2001