When Pope Francis came through Tokyo last week, I got the chance to see my second pontiff and was surprised with a second blessing — both humbling but also very different experiences.
It may seem odd for me to say I’ve seen two popes, since I am blind. But I saw them, only without my eyes.
Blind since the age of 4, I may not register visual images, but I see. I love birdwatching and even blog about it. My mind forms a tableau: I hear the birds singing, moving about, looking for food. It’s a scene of imagination, a scene of feeling.
In the same way, I saw Francis on Tuesday after his speech at Sophia University. As he walked by, I reached out my hand and it touched his vestments — they were fluffy, with air rustling through them. He shook my hand and then gently patted my head, as one might a child. It was like being wrapped in warm air.
I said “Gracias, gracias,” and he was gone.
In the enormous Tokyo Dome on Nov. 25 and at the university on Tuesday, I was struck by the gentleness Francis projected, in contrast with the power I had felt when I saw St. John Paul II at the Vatican 20 years ago, who also graced me with his touch.
On Nov. 25, it was quieter than I expected in a stadium used for rock concerts and baseball games. He led 50,000 people into silent contemplation, with only the occasional sound of a baby crying.
My encounter with John Paul, by contrast, was overpowering.
After an hour of prayers and hymns in the Paul VI audience hall near St. Peter’s Square, John Paul greeted each group, telling ours: “Kami ni kansha” or “Thanks be to God.”
Pressed against a rail at the front, I reached out as he approached. When he came to me, he held my head strongly between his hands and blessed me with a kiss on my forehead.
I felt a jolt of energy. I thought I might fall over backward. I started to cry. I didn’t know why — I wasn’t sad, I was happy. Later, as I reflected on that moment, I felt it was beyond my control — that it was God’s power, God’s presence.
That day, I became a pope-watcher. A year later I was baptized, becoming one of just half a million Catholics in Japan.
I was a student when I went to the Vatican. Last week I was working. A translator at Reuters for 26 years, I was thankful for the personal connection with John Paul that made me part of the team organized to cover Francis’s visit.
Francis seems more of a philosopher than John Paul, who could speak the language of politics with strength and clarity.
In his mass, Francis spoke of “the many people who are socially isolated,” and who are “enclosed and even asphyxiated.”
He spoke of a community that accepts the imperfect as worthy. “Is a disabled or frail person not worthy of love?” he asked.
He was speaking for people like me.
While Japanese are famously kind — strangers are always helping me on crowded trains — many here are marginalized.
When I was a child, students with disabilities were not integrated into society. And when I got my master’s degree, I was refused job interviews with more than 100 companies because of my disability.
Francis’ call to abolish nuclear weapons attracted the most headlines from this visit. But I also hope I will live to see his message of defending the vulnerable take firmer hold in Japan.