Pope wows Alaska senators — and Rep. Young’s wife

Sen. Lisa Murkowski shows the rosary beads she says prompted a special moment with the pope.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski shows the rosary beads she says prompted a special moment with the pope.

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Alaska’s congressional delegation had an audience with this pope this morning. Actually, all of Congress did, along with the president’s cabinet and the Supreme Court. But Sen. Lisa Murkowski did have a close encounter with Pope Francis, a personal moment that left her awestruck.

Murkowski was among a group of senators assigned to greet the pope inside the Capitol. She says lawmakers were instructed on decorum beforehand.

“So we were lined up and we were told, stand with your feet together and your hands clasped in front of you, and if the pope greets you, then you can greet him back,” she recounted.

The senator brought two strings of rosary beads with her to the Capitol– one made of Alaska jade that she thinks was a gift for her 25th birthday, and another from Brazil, made of glass beads. Murkowski says she intended to just have them near the pope, in his aura, as she put it.

Then, she says, an impulse came over her.

“I stretched out my cupped hand full of two rosaries,” she said. The pope was making his way down the lines of lawmakers, rather briskly, she says, heading into the House Chamber.

“He looked at me and he looked at the rosaries, and he came over,” she says. “And he put his hand on the pile of rosaries, then he cupped my other hand over it, and blessed me.”

Murkowski says she was too overcome to verbally greet the pope. The senator next to her, Republican Susan Collins of Maine, did those honors.

“So she provided the audio because I was absolutely just speechless,” Murkowski said, outside the Capitol after the pope departed. “I still have tingles from being in the immediate presence of His Holiness.”

Both of Alaska’s senators are Catholic, and each had a different perspective on the pope’s address in the minutes afterward. Murkowski says she liked that he encouraged dialog among leaders to solve difficult problems.

Sen. Dan Sullivan noticed that both in the House Chamber, and to the crowds waiting on the lawn outside, Francis emphasized the importance of children and families.

“And you could see how sincere he was, particularly when he said it out here,” Sullivan said, speaking on the West Terrace of the Capitol. “But I also think the pope is a wise man, and anytime you start a speech in that chamber with ‘It’s great to be in the land of the free and the home of the brave’ and end it with ‘God bless America,’ you’re going to be well received by everybody.”

Alaska’s lone House member, Don Young, and his wife spent the night before at his congressional office, to avoid getting caught in what was predicted to be a nasty traffic jam getting to the Capitol. Young’s take on the pontiff?

“He made a decent presentation,” Young said, acknowledging it was hard to understand the pope’s heavily accented English. “People were excited to see him. I went and read his speech afterward it didn’t have any earth-shaking statements in it at all, so it was … good.”

Young might sound a little blasé about the experience, but ask his wife, Anne Garland Young, what she made of it.

“Oh, I think it was thrilling and exciting just to be in the same moment and in the same room with such an incredibly wonderful person, who’s very inspirational and obviously very holy, very close to God,” she said. A life-long Catholic, she said the feeling was palpable. “Oh, absolutely! And I think just about everyone in that room really experienced the same thing. It was very beautiful, very moving.”

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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