Q & A with Sr. Norma Pimentel: Meeting Pope Francis

Getting an audience with the pope can be a once-in-a-lifetime event. But lately, Sr. Norma Pimentel, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, has been getting more than her share.

Her first encounter with the pope came during an Aug. 31 town hall, when Pope Francis called to her from a giant television screen parked in the middle of Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas.

"I love you," he told the Missionaries of Jesus sister, praising her work with immigrants along the border.

That event was followed by a flurry of invitations to coveted papal events during his U.S. visit. She sat in the VIP section at the White House, watching President Barack Obama welcome Pope Francis on Sept. 23. After that, it was off to Mass, followed by a trip to New York, where she watched the pope speak to the United Nations Sept. 25. Later, she visited Our Lady Queen of Angels School in Harlem with Sr. Donna Markham, president of Catholic Charities USA. Pimentel finally got to speak directly to the pope Saturday morning, Sept. 26 at the diplomatic residence of the Holy See.

She talked with Global Sisters Report by phone Saturday while taking a train to the airport. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

GSR: What was your first reaction upon seeing the pope in person?

Pimentel: Well, a little nervous at first, actually — nervous for the moment, the excitement of that precise moment that he was in front of me and he saw me. He recognized me, and he was very happy to see me. And most certainly, I was delighted and rejoiced. It was very nice, and I was able to present to him a painting that I had painted for him.

So you painted the painting?

Yes, I did. I actually have that gift of an artist, and so I was able to do [it]. I usually do oil, but lately I've been doing pastels, and that's what I did, a pastel painting.

The painting is a painting of a family from Honduras. It's a mother with her little boy. His name is Tomás. I named the painting "Tomasito." It has the expression of both of them after having had such a long journey that they were very tired. As they were sitting down to take their meals, I was able to take a picture. And through that picture, I did the painting capturing the expression in their eyes of what they had been through, through their journey as they came to the United States.

And so that's the painting that I wanted the Holy Father to have, and so he did express appreciation because he saw in the face, an understanding [of] what the meaning of the painting [was].

How long did you meet with Pope Francis?

It was just a few minutes. He was getting ready to leave for his trip to Philadelphia, so he had to go the airport and we didn't have very much time. There were other people there, as well. Sr. Donna Markham, who is the president/CEO from Catholic Charities USA, she was also with me.

What did you say to him?

I said I may not have another opportunity to meet with you and thank you personally, so I asked for a blessing for myself, one that is part of who I am and what I've done and for all the folks back home that have been supporting, praying for me and helping me in every way possible. And so I gave him a hug for all of us and received a blessing for all of us, as well.

Did he say anything to you?

He said thank you and he appreciated all that we do, especially those sisters in the United States. He was very happy to bless them for what we do and [said to] continue doing what we do and to pray for him. He asked us for his prayer that we keep praying, have good thoughts for him.

He gave a lot of shout-outs to the sisters in the world and the work they are doing. As a nun, what did that mean to you?

It's so reaffirming and so encouraging and so wonderful to know he's supporting his love and his care for us. It makes us feel part of him and who he is. He's our spiritual leader, and for him to say that is wonderful.

Can you tell me what it's like to be in the room when he greets everyday people, especially immigrants and undocumented children? He seems to have a connection to people that he meets in his travels. Can you describe that for us?

What I see in him is a special love and care for the most vulnerable and those who are fragile. He just identifies so closely with them and wants to support and encourage them. I think that's why he asks us to pray for him so much, because he wants to always be filled with that love that he wants to give to everybody.

Any memorable moments that you saw with Pope Francis?

Well, there were so many of them. It was wonderful and an experience that's hard to explain — to be part of such a historic event, to be at the White House and hear the president and the Holy Father say the same things. It's so reaffirming to be at the United Nations. Then I prayed that he [help] us to understand our responsibility, to love others, to care for others.


Did you do a tour yesterday with Donna Markham and the pope?

The tour was done at the school with some of the school officials, and they actually took him to see the children at the classrooms. It was very nice. He interacted with the children and he even played with one of the computer wall tablets that are educational. He actually . . . played around with it, as well. It was very nice to see him do that.

He walked into a rather big, like maybe a hall, where we were all gathered and . . . different groups of people from the community, from the church, were able to present to him a gift — immigrants and some families — and it was very nice how he interacted with each one, making it very special. He asked, ‘First, I want to sing, as well.’ And so a lady herself stood up and sang . . . in her native language. It was very wonderful in Spanish, the interactions with the group.

Going forward with your work with immigrants, what will you take away from your visit with him and in what way will it impact your work?

What I take with me is a strong encouragement to continue to do what we we're doing, what we have started. It's like being filled with the Holy Spirit to go forward and continue to do what we're doing, to pass that on to every person through my actions, through my words, through what I do, especially the immigrants and the families when I welcome them and I help them.

Do you think that the pope's message will resonate with U.S. Americans and soften their views on arriving immigrants and refugees?

Well, certainly, yes, definitely. Everywhere I've been in D.C. and New York, the people have been seeing it. You feel it in the air, the feeling of wonderful peace and happiness that people feel around us and everywhere — people that I ran into at the train station, that worked in the restrooms . . . saying how happy they are, how it's wonderful, how everybody is so nice. And I just wish that this would stay with us all the time. I think that there's a new happiness in everybody. I think it's wonderful and it's touched all of us, everybody: the policemen, the workers, everybody. All you have to do is see him and you didn't even have to touch him . . . you felt his presence.

During his entire trip, you've been following what he's been saying. What message inspired you the most?

The message that I hear him say and the expression that means so much to me is the moving forward and doing the right thing — not neglecting those that need us and . . . those who are asking us for our help. We need to be good people that care about the environment, about our world, to make it a good world for all of us. We have to be good caretakers of ourselves and others and of God's creation.

Those are my interpretations. Those were not the words of the Holy Father. That's how I understand him.

What does it mean to you to have a Latino pope?

It's so like he's one of us. We actually feel that connection. The fact that I can talk to him in Spanish is wonderful.

Of course, the moment that I met him personally and was able to give him a hug and ask for his blessing, I think that was for me, the most wonderful moment of the whole trip.

[Nuri Vallbona is a freelance documentary photojournalist. She worked for the Miami Herald from 1993 to 2008 and has been a lecturer at the University of Texas and Texas Tech University.]

Related - Pope Francis’ surprise call thanks sister for immigration ministry

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that the pope's virtual town hall meeting with 400 parishioners, immigrants, government officials and volunteers at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, was in July. It was Aug. 31. The ABS network show, "Pope Francis and the People," included other virtual town halls and was first aired Sept. 4.