Late last year, I traveled to Rome for the first time in a decade — and the first time as a wheelchair user. During my trip, I was grateful to (briefly) meet the Holy Father, Pope Francis, head of the Roman Catholic Church. This unique opportunity is open to all disabled people, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Pope Francis has spoken profoundly on the inherent value of every human person, to include those of us with disabilities. On the 2020 International Day of Persons with Disabilities, Pope Francis shared a special message with the disability community, arguing that “inclusion should be the first ‘rock’ on which to build our house.” He urged society not to ignore “the inevitable fact that frailty is part of everyone’s life” — disability touches each of us as we grow in age.

Due to the pope’s own advancing age, he now uses a wheelchair some of the time. His continued engagement with all of us, from the seat of a wheelchair, is an important witness — a statement to the world that mobility aids do not confine, they liberate and empower disabled people to engage in and contribute to their local communities and wider society!

How Disabled People Can Meet Pope Francis

Pope Francis holds a papal general audience in Vatican City’s St. Peter’s Square at 9:00 a.m. local time on Wednesdays. A complete calendar of papal audiences is published online. At each general audience, the pope illuminates a teaching of the Catholic faith through catechesis and offers an apostolic blessing to those in attendance. Following the audience, he greets invited guests as well as people with disabilities and recently married couples.

John seated in his power wheelchair shaking hands with Pope Francis, who is seated in a manual wheelchair.
Photo © Vatican Media

At the general audience I attended in November 2022, Pope Francis focused the catechetical message on his trip to Bahrain. He spoke of the importance of “a dialogue that seeks to discover the richness that other peoples, traditions and beliefs possess.” This encounter was critical, he said, because “each and every person is needed in order for the journey of fraternity and peace to progress.” A beautiful message!

Tickets to the Papal General Audience

Tickets to the general audiences are generally required and can be requested in advance through the Vatican’s papal audience website. Subject to availability, tickets can also be picked up from the Swiss Guards at the “Bronze Doors” located just after security in the colonnade of St. Peter’s Basilica. Ticket pick-up times are from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesdays, and from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. on Wednesday mornings.

I traveled as a solo wheelchair user and planned to secure a ticket in the morning, but was directed to the seating area reserved for disabled visitors — no ticket was necessary!

Wheelchair Accessible Seating at the Pope’s General Audience

Pope Francis seated on a chair from the papal speaking platform overlooking Saint Peter's Square.

Wheelchair users, rollator users and other guests with disabilities are invited to sit to the right of the pope’s platform near the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. Access to this area is via a metal ramp to the right of the basilica.

My seating spot was in the first row, to the right of and slightly behind the papal speaking platform. I sat next to a priest who was visiting from Mexico — many other guests with disabilities were seated nearby, within the first several rows.

Meeting the Pope after a general audience

Following the conclusion of the audience program (typically by 10:30 a.m.), the Pope greets guests who have been invited to sit in the preferred seating area — including disabled visitors, who are always offered this premium seating location.

One-by-one, the pope greets visitors, typically for 30 seconds or less. Pope Francis does not speak English and I speak no other languages, so I memorized the Spanish translation of the most important message I wanted to share with him: “Thank you, Pope Francis, please know that I am praying for you.”

Pope Francis resting his hand on John's wrist as they greet each other in Saint Peter's Square.
Photo © Vatican Media

Although the Holy Father can walk short distances, he uses a wheelchair when greeting visitors — a process that often takes an hour or more. When it was my turn, Pope Francis said hello, shook my hand, and I had the opportunity to speak my memorized message to him (in Spanish). He smiled, listened intently, thanked me and held my hand again before moving on to the next person.

Professional photos of your meeting with Pope Francis

Vatican photographers took multiple photos of my interaction with Pope Francis — they do the same for all visitors who meet the pope. Images are usually published to the Vatican Media website within 24 hours, and are available for purchase in both print and (low-resolution) digital form. Due to processing delays for online orders paid with credit card, I highly recommend you visit the Vatican Media offices in person — the office is wheelchair accessible and is located on Via del Pellegrino in Vatican City.

Vatican Media granted me license to use higher resolution copies of the photographs taken of me and the Holy Father, in the interest of sharing information on the accessibility of the pope’s weekly general audiences.

Final Thoughts

Meeting the pope is an incredible opportunity, but with more than 1 billion catholics around the world, few actually get the chance to do so. By offering preferential treatment to disabled attendees of the Wednesday general audience, the Church has granted an enormous gift to those of us with disabilities. My brief interaction with Pope Francis is a moment I will treasure long into the future, and I hope you also will have that opportunity!

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