When I sent Eleanor Roosevelt a list of questions in 1962, her prompt response inspired me to write to other luminaries.
Almost immediately after he became pontiff in June 1963 I sent Pope Paul VI a list of questions and asked that he respond to them for Smoke Signals, the student newspaper of Morrisville-Eaton Central School in New York State.
God knows what questions I thought appropriate to send the pope. I never kept carbon copies of my correspondence so they are lost forever. I was also oblivious, at 16, of the administrative chaos that must have prevailed in the Curia in the transition between John XXIII and Paul.
After a year, when I had completely forgotten my letter to the pope, an ordinary looking envelope arrived in the mail.
Inside was a note from Father Pasquale Macchi, the pope’s private secretary. This note is also lost, but I recall its friendly tone and Father Macchi’s assurance that the Holy Father, as the son of a journalist, was always glad to hear from journalists, even if he couldn’t respond to every letter. I think Father Macchi also assured me of a papal blessing.
The blessing was nice but it was even nicer that a priest in Rome was willing to play along with me as I posed as a genuine journalist.
I didn’t think about this correspondence for decades until April 1999 when my father, Elmore Jenks, died and the family gathered for his funeral in Morrisville, N.Y. The Rev. Walt Ketcham, an old family friend presided at the funeral. Walt added this anecdote to his eulogy:
“When I was Elmore’s pastor in Morrisville, I was contacted by a prominent and very alarmed Catholic layman who complained that Elmore’s son, Phil, was writing to the pope. I had no idea what Phil would be writing to the pope about, so I contacted Elmore to see if he had any idea. Elmore rolled his eyes and smiled. ‘Phil does stuff like that,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t mean anything by it.’”
I had no idea, in my teenage naiveté, that it was such an alarming thing to write a letter to the pope. As a Baptist, I also had no clue about apostolic succession, though I’m pretty sure I would have written to Saint Peter, too, if I had had the chance. But it was a startling revelation years later that my letter to Paul VI had been so distressing to old-fashioned Catholics who must have been reeling from the potential of Vatican II.
Looking back, I’m pleased that at least two persons were not alarmed by my effrontery. My father never told me that he had brushed aside an ecclesial complaint about me.
And Father Macchi, clearly unoffended by my letter, sent warm words and a blessing.