Bruce Howard, 61, well known to Montaukers from his job at the Montauk Post Office, and Louise Meybert, 92, a Montauk resident, traveled to Italy earlier this month hoping to see Pope Francis. They not only saw him, they met him, received a hands-on blessing, and asked him to pray for Montauk.
“You pray for me,” the pope told Mr. Howard, who reported that it sent chills through his body. “It was amazing,” he said. “I couldn’t believe I was that close to the pope.” He said that he and Pope Francis shared birthdays, Tuesday.
The traveling companions met years ago through the post office and became friends. Mr. Howard looks out for Ms. Meybert, checking on her daily and bringing her the newspaper that is left in her driveway at the bottom of a steep hill. He also takes her to Mass every week and does her grocery shopping.
“He’s pretty good to me,” she said.
For most of her life, Ms. Meybert, a devout Catholic, cared for her sister, who was incapacitated and unable to leave their house. She always wanted to see a pope, she said, “but I couldn’t, because I was always caring for my sister,” who is no longer alive.
A blast from the past finally got her on the road. Back in 1942, during World War II, she became good friends through the U.S.O. with a man named Mike Clinton. After he went away to service, she never heard from him again. She said she thought he had washed overboard from his ship, and presumed him dead.
But in the late ’90s the Rev. Raymond Nugent, the parish priest at Montauk’s St. Therese of Lisieux Church at the time, told Ms. Meybert that a man named Mike Clinton from Scotland was trying to get in touch with her. They spoke by phone, and Ms. Meybert became friendly with his wife. They continued their phone conversations for years and the Clintons extended to her an open invitation to visit Scotland whenever she could make it. In 2009, she finally said to Mr. Howard, “Let’s go.”
At his own mother’s urging, he agreed, but said he couldn’t take time off until the summer. They traveled on June 21, and Mr. Howard said it really was the longest day of the year.
After that, he said, Ms. Meybert, who uses a wheelchair to get around, got bitten by the travel bug. Until then, he explained, she had never been on a train, boat, or plane. “She was fascinated with everything. She couldn’t believe how much she had been missing.” Since then, the pair has been to Paris, Germany, and other European tourist sites.
One day, Mr. Howard said, Ms. Meybert told him, “I want to see the pope.”
“Take her to Italy,” his mother ordered.
When the two travel, they stay in adjoining rooms and use wall knock signals to convey messages. Mr. Howard always gets an extra key for her room in case of emergency.
They were told there was a procedure that must be followed for a visit with the pope and contacted officials of the Rockville Centre Diocese, who told them what needed to be done. And off to Italy they went.
After arriving on Dec. 3, they were required to attend an orientation meeting at the North American College at Casa Santa Maria. They were told not to touch the pope or reach out, and to maintain respect.
They received their tickets for the Vatican. The next day, along with about 60,000 others, they were shuffled through three huge doors at the entrance to St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. They headed toward the handicapped section and approached two Swiss Guards, who told them to sit in seats one and two. “We were right there, right in front of him in the front row,” said Mr. Howard, shaking his head in disbelief.
After the pontiff’s 45-minute address, which was translated into seven languages, he started walking toward the crowd. People were yelling at him, “Papa Francois,” said Mr. Howard. He yelled “Jorge,” which is the pope’s real name, and that caught the pope’s attention. He looked directly at Mr. Howard and smiled. “I felt something like a spark go through my body,” Mr. Howard said, beaming.
Once people had seen the pope close up, they were ushered out of the square, and soon the two Montauk residents found themselves in the small crowd that remained. Pope Francis walked over to them and placed his hand on Ms. Meybert’s head for a blessing. He spoke with her and gave her a pair of white rosary beads that he blessed. “He was so humble. And had such a sweet smile on his face,” she said.
Mr. Howard put his hand out for a rosary and was told by a guard, no, no rosary for you! “[Handicapped] people live in chairs; they’re the ones that are going to get his attention,” he said.
And what did the pope speak about that day? “I couldn’t tell you. I was in awe just looking, watching everybody,” Mr. Howard said.
Afterward, the two were allowed to go behind the Vatican to a walled-in space of many acres, where they were surprised to see rolling hills, gardens, and trees. “It looked like a place in California,” said Mr. Howard.
Ms. Meybert said she thought the pope was wonderful. “I could go back tomorrow,” she said.
“I guess we’re going back to Rome,” Mr. Howard said and shrugged his shoulders.