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Harbaugh meets Pope Francis: 'It was beautiful'

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Vatican City — Sarah Harbaugh had never seen her husband, Jim Harbaugh, Michigan’s football coach, speechless.

But after the two shook hands and greeted Pope Francis after the general audience with the pope at St. Peter’s Square, he could not muster any words to describe the moment.

Pope Francis is presented with a football helmet by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh during the weekly general audience Wednesday at the Vatican. (L'Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP)

Michigan’s football players and coaches also attended the Papal audience Wednesday morning along with thousands who made the pilgrimage and were seated just below where the pope was seated. Harbaugh and his wife were seated behind the pope and to his left.

About a half hour after the Papal Audience, which consists of readings mainly in Italian but also in other languages and ends when the crowd prays together with the pope saying the “Our Father” prayer in Latin, Harbaugh got his opportunity to meet Pope Francis. He handed him a Michigan helmet and shoes.

“Afterwards when someone had come to us for a statement, he couldn’t speak, so he looked at me and I’ve never seen my husband at a loss for words,” Sarah Harbaugh said. “He said, ‘You go.’ I couldn’t go either, but I felt like if he’s asking me I’ve got to say something. So who knows what I said because it was right afterwards. I was still very emotional. I think I was crying. He was at a loss. He felt a true life-changing experience as well.”

Harbaugh, who brought his team to Rome for a team-bonding, educational experience that also will include three practices that begin Thursday, later described how struck he was by the moment.

“The experience was emotional, it was beautiful,” said Harbaugh, a devout Catholic. “The Holy Father’s face is beautiful. His smile. The way he talks is peaceful. It’s calm. It felt like this is what it would be like to meet Jesus Christ. That’s what it felt like to me. Very emotional.

“I said ‘Buenos dias santo padre,’ and then my wife came in and told the Holy Father that she loved him. He held my hand and prayed, then he asked we pray for him, and don’t forget. That was very emotional. I’ve been trying to figure it out, what the experience means, what am I supposed to do with it. At least he gave me the marching orders to pray for him, so I have that part of it down. And also a couple minutes after meeting the Holy Father, I met Monsignor (Robert) McClory from Detroit and asked him what to do to try to figure out. He said to pray. Once you get away to be silent and pray about it and ask God what this moment of grace, what this opportunity, what this experience was supposed to lead me to. So I will do that. Seems like great advice. He said I’d figure out. He’s confident that I will, and I’m confident I will figure it out too.”

The Harbaughs were shuffled back a bit while they waited for the pope, who moved along greeting the visitors, and Sarah encouraged her husband to hold up the helmet higher, so the Pope would see them. Harbaugh held the box of size 11 Jordan shoes on which, “Your Holiness” was written, and on top of that was a specially made Michigan helmet. It featured the Italian and American flags, had “Pope Francis” inscribed and the number 266, since he is the 266th leader of the Roman Catholic church.

“He was smiling, but it was one of those ‘Ooooooooooo, thank youuuu’ (looks),” Sarah said, laughing.  “I’d like to see him in those Jordans.”

“He looked at the helmet and he took the pair of Jordan sneakers, it was a box, helmet on top, and he took it and he smiled and nodded his head and then gave it to somebody next to him,” Jim Harbaugh said. “I’m not sure the Holy Father knows a lot about football Americano, but he doesn’t need to.”

Sarah Harbaugh, the wife of Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh, kisses the hand of Pope Francis on Wednesday.

They were both moved by the words the pope spoke to them. Sarah Harbaugh told him she loves him and told him he is beautiful.

“I mean, he’s absolutely beautiful,” she said. “His smiles, his eyes, it’s just breathtaking when you actually see it in person. He grabbed my hands, and he looked right into my eyes, and (he said), ‘Pray for me. Pray for me, and don’t forget.’ And then he came back and said, ‘Don’t forget.’ It was just like, ‘Wow, he needs us.’

“He needs the prayers. He’s got the weight of the world. All these different countries come to him for spiritual guidance and spiritual help, and he feels all that. You can tell he carries the pain, the fighting, the wars. You could see the pain in his eyes. That’s something I thought before. That’s changed for sure. He needs our prayers. He’s all-loving, regardless what religion you are. He wants to help the world. It was a beautiful moment. Not knowing if it was going to happen, still feeling amazed to be in his presence but actually touching him … oh, I did kiss his hand. It was there. It was so soft, and I thought ‘OK, I’ve got to do this.’ I didn’t know if I was going to get slapped. It was a great moment.”

Jim Harbaugh also detected a look of distress in the eyes of the Pope.

“There’s pain there,” he said. “There’s so much injustice in the world, there’s so much poverty and war and injustice and you can tell and feel he feels that. I think that especially made it feel to myself and to Sarah, this is what it would be like to meet Jesus. The very closest thing.”

The couple will see their infant son, John Paul, baptized this week at St. Ann’s in the Vatican, and their 8-year-old daughter Addie will have her first communion.

It has been an eventful week for Harbaugh and the Wolverines, who arrived in Rome on Sunday, fulfilling his grand plan that was hatched last June to give his team a unique educational experience in addition to football.

But being at St. Peter’s in the presence of Pope Francis with his parents, Jack and Jackie, also participating in the audience along with the Michigan players who chose to be part of it — this was, like all events on their itinerary here, optional — was a highlight.

“This has been the experience of a lifetime,” Harbaugh said. “We’ve said it before, all learning’s not done in a classroom, it’s not done on a football field. It’s done in other ways. And much like the eighth-grade trips that American schools take to Washington, D.C. or to Rome, or the senior school trips the schools will take to Rome, you know why they do it because the experience you have in a place like Rome is mesmerizing.

“But also to experience that with your family, your friends, your teammates, you have the personal experience that’s beyond expectations, but you also get to experience through 100 or 150 other friends and family, and that makes it 900 times better. This is the way to do it in this big group that has made this the trip of a lifetime, the experience of a lifetime. It’s completely blown us away. The experiences you have today (in the Papal audience), that’s a personal experience, that’s something I hope our players just think on it, and it’s what they take away from it. It’s what their personal experience is that matters, much like your own personal relationship with God. For me this has been amazing. The top three priorities in my life — faith, family, football, all together has been amazing.

“If I accomplish nothing more, if I go right now, I’ll be going out a blessed man. This is as good as it gets. This has been the best experience of my lifetime.  Better than I could have hoped for, better than I could have expected.”

The players who authored essays Harbaugh selected as the best about why it would be meaningful to meet the Pope were not guaranteed but were hopeful to be seated with Harbaugh and his wife and have a chance to meet him. Grant Newsome and Salim Makki accompanied Harbaugh initially, but because there was not enough space in the other seating area, they could not join him.

“It’s amazing,” Newsome said, as he walked through St. Peter’s Square.

Makki and Newsome joined their teammates and coaches in the general audience seating with a clear view of the stage where the Pope sat.

“We were probably 40 feet from him and to be able to see him and the reaction everyone had, a lot of us were at a loss for words,” Newsome said. “I know how much this trip means (to Harbaugh) and how much it means to us, and you can really see how dedicated he is through today.”

The Papal Audience are held on Wednesdays when the pope is in Rome and allows visitors the chance to see him and receive the Papal Blessing. Pope Francis arrived in St. Peter’s Square in his white open-air car and greeted the visitors as he made his way through the crowd before moving to the stage.

“Just to be there and get to hear him speak, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Newsome said.

Harbaugh, like his wife, shook hands with the pope. The moment sealed the experience.

“I was able to shake hands with the Holy Father,” Harbaugh said. “He’s very personal, very informal that way and very humble and wonderful and beautiful. It’s in the eyes. It’s IN the eyes. They’re holy.”