We still don't know the name or age of the little boy who joined Pope Francis Saturday during a papal address at the Vatican -- and the Pope's gracious reaction -- but it was a vivid reminder of a four-year-old boy from northern Virginia who did the same thing with one of the Pope's predecessors 12 years ago.
Only Brendan Kelly had an even more special moment with Pope John Paul II because of two things: he had Down Syndrome and was seriously ill with leukemia, and he and his parents returned to the U.S. via Newark just hours before Arab terrorists hijacked a plane in Newark and planned to crash it into the U.S. Capitol or the White House before passengers forced the plane to crash in Pennsylvania.
I know about Brendan because I wrote about him shortly after the September 2011 terrorist attacks on the U.S., and I knew his grandfathers, one of whom worked for Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and the other a prominent Washington lawyer. Because of them, I learned of Brendan's almost fairy tale-like encounter with Pope John Paul.
Brendan's parents arranged the meeting with the Pope through the Make a Wish Foundation, which made it possible for seriously ill children to meet anyone they wanted to. Brendan kept a photo of the Pope in his bedroom and prayed to him and wanted to meet him, which he did when he and his parents and brother and sister flew to Rome on Aug. 31.
They missed their first papal audience because of a miscommunication but a friendly nun arranged a second audience in the pope's private chapel at Castel Gondolfo, where they waited with 20 other people after the pope said mass.
"As soon as he came in, Brendan took off and stood right by his side," his mother told me. "The whole time, while the pope was greeting other people, Brendan stood by him with his hand on his arm. He couldn't take his eyes off it. It was very beautiful."
As the pope greeted the others, he winked at Brendan and patted him on the head. Then, after having his picture taken with Brendan and his family, he gave everyone his blessing and started to leave the room. Just as he reached the door, Brendan ran towards the frail 81-year-old pontiff and cried out, "Bye Pope!"
The pope turned around and walked back to where Brendan stood. Smiling, he leaned over and shook his hand and the Vatican photographer took a photo. "It was a special moment," said his mother. "You could see that they just loved each other."
The Kellys stayed another ten days in Rome before flying back to the U.S. They arrived at Newark International Airport late on Sept. 10 and caught a flight to Washington. But a few hours later, terrorists hijacked a plane at Newark bound for San Francisco and planned to crash it into the White House or Capitol. where Sen. Inouye and Brendan's grandfather might have been among the victims.
"Maybe it was just luck and the courage of the passengers who fought the attackers that prevented it from happening," I wrote at the time. "Or maybe, if you believe in miracles, Brendan Kelly and his friend the pope had something to do with it."
There is a sad end to this story. Brendan died last April at the age of 15, a victim of leukemia, and I attended his funeral at St. Catherine of Siena church in Great Falls. On the back of a laminated card handed out at his funeral was a photo of Pope John Paul shaking hands with the four-year old Brendan.
I can't help but think that Brendan has reconnected with his friend. I hope he has.