It was luck of the draw.
That’s how Alexandria seminarian Brian Seiler, a third year theology student from the Pontifical College Josephinum, was selected to serve at the New Year’s Day Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome with Pope Francis.
It all started a few months ago when the Josephinum made a request to the Vatican to have some of its seminarians assist the Pope at Mass.
The response came quickly with a “yes” and with further instructions that they could send as many as 16.
The Josephinum thought that the only fair way was to draw names, so the names of all third year seminarians were put in a hat. Brian Seiler’s name was one of the lucky 16 chosen to serve on the altar with Pope Francis.
Even though Brian was selected to serve on the altar, the two other third year seminarians – Dale Meade and Joseph Desimone – also went on the trip to Rome.
(An anonymous donor at the PCJ pays for a trip to Rome, for all seminarians about to be ordained as deacons. Dale Meade, Brian Seiler, and Joseph Deimone are scheduled to be ordained as transitional deacons on May 24, 2014.)
Once in Rome, Seiler spent a day “practicing” his role in the world-televised event.
“I was selected to hold the microphone for Pope Francis,” he said. “I was given this role because… well, because… I am short… and they wanted someone short so that person would not block being able to see the Pope.”
On the day of the Mass, Seiler was told to report to the Pieta area, a glass-enclosed area in St. Peter’s Basilica, where Michelangelo’s famous Pieta (Blessed Mother holding the crucified Christ in her arms) is located.
“We joined the others in the Basilica praying the rosary while we waited for the Pope’s arrival,” he said. “It was a very moving experience to be praying the rosary in St. Peter’s Basilica, while touching the base of the Pieta.”
When Pope Francis arrived, he greeted each seminarian in the Pieta Chapel with a handshake and a warm ‘Happy New Year’ greeting in Italian.
“I responded quickly with the same greeting in my best Italian,” he said. “I hope I said ‘Happy New Year’ (bon anna in Italian) and not bonanna, which means ‘Happy Banana.'”
After the acolytes (ordained altar servers) helped the pontiff into his vestments, the group processed in grand procession down the aisle of the Great St. Peter’s Basilica – one of the holiest of Catholic Churches in the world.
“I was one of the four servers who walked directly behind Pope Francis,” said Brian.
For the remainder of the Mass, Seiler stood under the baldacchino – the pavilion-like structure that stands below the dome and above the altar. It is claimed to be the largest bronze structure in the world and is ornately designed to create a sort of holy space in and around the altar where the Holy Eucharist is laid.
“I was a little nervous about getting it all right,” he said. “In practice, I was warned to be careful with the microphone and to make sure that I didn’t accidentally hit the Pope with the microphone. So, I waited for my cues and prayed that I wouldn’t mess it up.
“In practice they told me that if all went well, everything would be gone and forgotten tomorrow; however, if I DID accidentally hit the Pope with the microphone, I would go down in history as the “dumb seminarian who gave the Pope a black eye!” Thankfully, all went well.”
Throughout the Mass, Seiler found himself immensely touched by the most exciting experience of his life – serving the Pope at Mass.
“On several occasions, my eyes swelled up with tears as I soaked in the awesomeness of the experience,” he said. “From walking down the aisle of the great Basilica and being directly behind the Pope to watching the Pope raise the Eucharist at the moment of consecration on the holiest of altars in the world – the altar where so many popes before have celebrated Mass; the whole experience was indescribable.
At the end of the Mass, the Pope processed down the aisle, with Brian and the other three servers following directly behind.
As the Pope exited the church, a downs-syndrome child from the front of the crowd and reached for the Pope and cheered loudly, “I love you!”
“There was so much cheering I don’t think anyone heard the child, but I did and it was very touching. I choked up again,” he said.
“My friends took pictures of me with the Pope, when they could, and of course they had to point out that my eyes were red (from tears) in most of the pictures,” he said…” and they probably were. I have been extremely blessed and humbled by this entire experience. I was in awe the whole time I was on the altar and I continue to be in awe today. It is a wonderful memory that I will hold in my heart for the rest of my life.”