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O.C. man gets personal with pope

Times Staff Writer

Many questions arise when people hear that Armando Cervantes recently had lunch with Pope Benedict XVI.

The answer to the most obvious question -- Did this really happen? -- is yes. Cervantes and 11 other young adults from across the globe met with the pontiff and Cardinal George Pell of Sydney during Benedict’s visit last month to Australia. This wasn’t a quick photo opportunity. They had a leisurely lunch and discussed their lives and their faith.

Cervantes, who directs youth and young adult ministry programs for the Diocese of Orange, says people often have another question: Did the pope impart some great message?

That question was harder to answer at first. But now, weeks after the event, the message has become clearer, though still subtle.

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We’ll get to the pope’s grand message in a bit. (We’ll also hold off explaining how the pope ended up with a Mickey Mouse hat.) First, we’ll let Cervantes explain what happened during the intimate gathering with Benedict.

Cervantes, 27, lives in Brea, his hometown. He started his current job with the Diocese of Orange this year after working in the diocese as a volunteer. He attended his first World Youth Day, a gathering of young Catholics from across the world, in Rome in 2000.

The 23rd annual World Youth Day festivities were held July 12 to July 21 in various Australian cities. The theme of this year’s event was taken from Acts 1:8 -- “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses.”

Cervantes was already preparing to lead a delegation from the diocese when he came in contact with officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who asked if he might help out on a project while in Australia. Cervantes politely said he didn’t think he could leave his other duties while at the event.

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He later got another call from a conference official: Would he be willing to represent the United States at a lunch meeting with the pope? He laughs now about finding a way to work it into his schedule.

The lunch took place July 18 at Pell’s residence in Sydney. Cervantes and the others were led into a room with a circular table. Place cards directed them where to sit. Security guards swept through the room, then the group was told to wait: The Holy Father would be with them shortly.

“All of us didn’t know what to say,” Cervantes recalled. They joked about not knowing which fork to use and warned those who would be seated next to the pope not to accidentally use his bread plate. They also peeked through the drawn blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse of the pope arriving.

When Benedict arrived with Pell, the two men quickly put the young delegates, who were all in their 20s, at ease. Share who you are and what you do, the pope told them.

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Cervantes had memorized facts about his diocese and it was clear the other diners had also prepared facts to share. But that’s not what the pope wanted. “He would bring us back to talk about us,” Cervantes said.

He talked about his parents, both immigrants, and his work in youth ministry. The pope asked their names and where they had come from, and if Cervantes had siblings. “I didn’t think he would ask any of that,” Cervantes said.

But he answered the questions. His parents, Alicia and Fermin Cervantes, immigrated from Mexico. He has a sister, Vivian, and a brother, Miguel. The pope also asked about Orange County and if the church was multicultural. Benedict seemed pleased, Cervantes said, when he talked about the large presence of Spanish- and Vietnamese-speaking Catholics.

Another delegate, when asked, spoke of his work as a teacher. Benedict, a longtime academic, perked up at that.

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“What do you like to teach?” he asked. Then a man representing Australia’s aborigines -- his chair was decorated with a kangaroo skin -- said he hoped to inspire other indigenous peoples.

A thread connected most of the personal stories:

“That all of us had a struggle, a conversion or a transformation -- and that all of us had a desire to help other people,” Cervantes said.

The conversation was held mostly in English, but the pope switched to Spanish and French at times. With a Korean man to his right, he spoke in German. Benedict was like “a grandfather trying to get know about his grandchildren,” Cervantes said.

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The diners took a break for the pope to see some gifts each person brought. Cervantes and his youth groups wanted to give the pope something classically American, so he brought a basket with assorted gifts. Among the items was a book of blessings from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a nod to baseball, there was an Angels visor.

There was also an orange stress ball, the kind overworked people like to squeeze to relieve tension. “What is this?” Benedict asked.

Cervantes explained, prompting a laugh. “Seeing him smile and seeing him laugh was worth it,” he said.

Then came the classic Orange County gift: A Mickey Mouse hat. As any kid knows, it has to have your name on it. So embroidered between the ears was “Benedict XVI.”

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But Cervantes had a serious message for the pope as well: “There is hope and there is faith in the U.S.”

Two days after the lunch, Benedict delivered a homily during a Mass held at the Randwick Racecourse in Sydney. “The Church especially needs the gifts of young people, all young people,” he told the crowd. “She needs to grow in the power of the Spirit who even now gives joy to your youth and inspires you to serve the Lord with gladness.”

The homily hit home for Cervantes. “This is a person who truly cares, who lives what he preaches,” he said.

In the weeks following his lunch with the pope, Cervantes has reflected on the experience -- “It’s definitely given me more inner strength” -- and has realized that what surprised him then makes sense now. “His writings talk about making personal connections,” he said.

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That explains all the questions about family and personal journeys. And why the pope didn’t really say much himself.

“He’s a very good listener,” Cervantes said. “You’re used to seeing him take charge.” But with the young people, he “just was listening to us.”

--

steve.padilla@latimes.com

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