When Ryan met Pope Francis

Updated: Jan 14

Ryan Browne is one of our seminarians in Rome. In his first month there he met the Pope and served at the historic canonisation of Saint John Henry Newman, the first non-martyr English saint in hundreds of years. We caught up with Ryan about his whirlwind start as a young man training for the Catholic priesthood.

In only your first month in Rome as a seminarian you ended up meeting the Pope - how did that happen?

'Believe it or not, the Vatican and whole Roman machine works very close to deadlines. I remember sitting in a bar with some friends near the Pantheon and we received a text message from a fellow seminarian back at the college. He said that a list had been put up in the common room asking for six people to serve at the canonisation Mass on Sunday 13th October. I never actually made the decision, but luckily my friend decided to write my name on the sign-up sheet. It was certainly a case of just having a friend in the right place at the right time. Moments like these show you that we don’t choose those most profound moments of our lives, they are a pure gift from the Holy Spirit.'

I sincerely believe after meeting him, that he sees himself first and foremost as a humble priest, who has been called to serve the Church we all know and love dearly.

What was he like? Did you share any conversation with him?

'The Holy Father usually greets the servers at papal Masses in the sacristy before he vests. It was quite an extraordinary meeting for several reasons. I remember feeling so nervous that I had to find the toilets in St Peter’s Basilica. Whilst I went on my search, I had the pleasure of bumping into Deacon Stephen Morgan, known to many in our diocese. After we spoke, I realised that I was late and dashed back to the papal sacristy, which is situated by that beautiful and unforgettable statue; the Pietà. A friend of mine and I were so late that Pope Francis had already arrived and was greeting the servers. He glanced up at us as we dashed in, I can only imagine what he was thinking “who are these guys running in?!” We then took our places in the line to meet him. I remember shaking so much and I couldn’t muster much to say to him. All I remember saying (in my limited knowledge of Italian) was, “Santo Padre, piacere!” (Holy Father, pleasure!) He greeted me in response, but what was most profound was his gaze into my eyes. Pope Francis, the man, is not a powerful figure in his own view, I sincerely believe after meeting him, that he sees himself first and foremost as a humble priest, who has been called to serve the Church we all know and love dearly.'

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What was it like serving for the Mass of the first English saint (who was not martyred) in over five hundred years?

'It was incredibly moving. When we talk about the saints, there is the temptation to speak of them as ‘in the past’ and no longer in the present with us. At the Mass, it felt as if he was among us, as the Pope uttered the words that raised Cardinal Newman to the altars. What struck me the most at the Mass were the vast amounts of English pilgrims who had travelled to Rome for this incredible day for the Church in England. Sitting opposite me during the Mass was Prince Charles. His presence in particular is a major sign of the Church’s presence in the UK today. It is a sign that the saints bind us, as a Christian community, strongly together. Serving at the canonisation, I was able to clearly see this.'

The central reason for seminary is to cultivate a priestly heart in the midst of our own humanity; a heart mirrored on Jesus.

So, a saint and a Pope in the first month – have you peaked too soon?

'I’ve had this question a lot. It’s not common for these events to happen within your first month at the seminary. However, we are given these experiences for a reason. I think this particular experience is to ground me at the start of my seminary formation. It’s very easy to be ‘wowed’ by events around us, whilst forgetting the reality of what we’re supposed to be doing. The central reason for seminary is to cultivate a priestly heart in the midst of our own humanity; a heart mirrored on Jesus. It’s my prayer through these amazing experiences, that they set my heart on Christ, who I seek to follow.'

Outside of all of those amazing events, have you settled in to seminary life in Rome?

'Absolutely. It’s my first time living in a religious community and I’m enjoying every moment of it. The greatest joys of my seminary experience so far are the friendships I have built up in the college community. For anyone considering diocesan priesthood reading this, dare to take the jump to apply to seminary, the journey you will embark on is worth every risk.'

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Does Pope Francis inspire you, especially as someone who is aiming to become a priest in the future? If so, how?

'He inspires me massively. Every pope has their charisms and brings their particular talents to the papacy. I remember reading an article that showed a picture of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. For each one accordingly it said: “This is what we believe”, “This is why we believe it”, and for Pope Francis it said, “Let’s go and put it into practice.” We live in a world that is marred by division, but in Pope Francis we have a person who seeks to live out his faith in practical ways, so as to bring healing. It is his how he lives his faith that inspires me, as someone who is discerning a vocation to the diocesan priesthood.'

Does it become normal to live in Rome or are you still having moments of awe living in the eternal city?

'The great joy of living in a massive city is that you discover something new every day. As expected, Rome is no different to this rule. That’s not to say that you can take things for granted. I remember recently sitting in a lecture theatre and looking out of the window. In clear sight was the Colosseum! I remember just being amazed by seeing this from the classroom. It’s times like this I am in total awe living in Rome, there’s certainly never a dull moment.'

Please keep all our seminarians in your prayers! Find out more about our vocations work here.

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