Mary’s Rome Campus student is the second in as many years to make beanie swap with pontiff

BISMARCK, ND — Good teachers are always looking for teachable moments for their students. So, it is safe to say, University of Mary student and religious-education-teacher-to-be Chris Riedman’s recent encounter with Pope Francis is one of many precious experiences that he’ll undoubtedly share with his future students—whenever and wherever that time comes.

Perhaps the first lesson is one we’ve all heard before, if at first you don’t succeed, try again. Riedman and his University of Mary Rome Campus classmates got up bright and early to catch the 5:15 a.m. bus to attend Pope Francis’ Wednesday address to the faithful indoors at the Pope Paul VI Audience Hall. This is a smaller, more intimate venue than the much larger St. Peter’s Square where he first saw the pope three years ago during his high school pilgrimage with thousands of other faithful. In the hall, the pope is able to greet the pilgrims in person instead of just waving to people from his Popemobile. On this day he was able to sit near the aisle where Pope Francis would be walking.

University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt) shakes Pope Francis' hand after exchanging zucchettos with the pontiff

University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt) shakes Pope Francis’ hand after exchanging zucchettos with the pontiff

“It worked out that I was standing next to a baby, which worked in my favor because the Holy Father always stops to give his blessing and a kiss to babies,” recalled Riedman, a Bismarck, ND, native studying at University of Mary’s Rome campus while double majoring in philosophy and Catholic studies. “As soon as the curtains opened and everyone saw the Pope, the hall erupted in cheers and clapping as people went a little crazy trying to get a moment with the pope. And I don’t blame them-when you see the Holy Father only a few feet away from you, the only thing that you’re able to say is ‘Papa. Papa.’ But this time, I couldn’t even speak. I think for a time I even forgot how to smile. As Pope Francis approached me, I held my hand out holding my zucchetto. He immediately saw it and a grin crossed his face—of course, when is the pope not smiling? We exchanged glances and he then took the zucchetto, sized it up, and placed it on his head.”

To his amazement, Riedman had just pulled off the exchange that he had been planning for years. His research about zucchetto trades made popular by Pope St. John Paul II, what he learned about the Church, its traditions and legacies of the popes, had finally come true.

University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt) smiles as Pope Francis accepts his zucchetto then takes off his own zucchetto to exchange with Riedman

University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt) smiles as Pope Francis accepts his zucchetto then takes off his own zucchetto to exchange with Riedman

“I had dreamed of having a special token that signified the papacy and share with others – that of course being a zucchetto,” added Riedman, a junior who started school at Mary in the fall of 2015 as one of the school’s first Year-Round Campus students. “After the exchange, I had the opportunity to shake his hand. I was so struck I couldn’t speak, but if I could, I would have thanked him immensely for not just the gift he had given me, but for the impact he continually makes on my life.”

The impact on Riedman is felt every Sunday at noon. That’s when Riedman makes his way from Mary’s campus to St. Peter’s Square to hear Francis’ homily and pray the Angelus with him and thousands of other pilgrims. But this was Riedman’s moment.

“After my amazing moment with Pope Francis, I stood there with the biggest smile on my face. I looked down at the zucchetto that I now possessed and realized that I was shaking a bit. I looked down the aisle and saw some of the students from the Rome campus and we all couldn’t believe what had just happened. I definitely feel blessed and extremely lucky that it went so smoothly and that I even had the opportunity at all. But I don’t really see having the pope’s zucchetto as a strictly Chris Riedman thing, but more of a Rome Campus Spring 2017 thing. We are all a tight community on campus and it wouldn’t be right to have something so fantastic all for myself. Something like a zucchetto is meant to be shared in order to inspire one’s faith to grow in new ways.”

Inspirational events come in many forms. His zucchetto exchange with Pope Francis is just one of many, but unbelievably perhaps not the most significant for Riedman. Two times he came face to face with death.

“I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease, at an early age that really took a toll on my life for many years. I missed almost entire years of school because I kept having to be in the hospital and I lost a good portion of what could be considered my childhood. I made over 90 trips to Mayo Clinic, once by air ambulance, and after that the only choice was to have my entire colon removed because I couldn’t be cured. Without that surgery, I believe that my life would have been in real danger.”

Riedman has since been diagnosed with Crohns disease. His need for occasional IV fluids through an accessible port under his skin keeps him from going to the hospital on a regular basis—except for one unfortunate instance three years ago in high school.

“I suddenly became extremely cold, weak, and shaky,” recalls Riedman. “I didn’t know what, but I definitely knew something was wrong. I called my mom and she came to get me and I asked to just be taken home – I felt that I maybe just needed some sleep and IV fluid. But her motherly instincts kicked in and she had a feeling that I needed to see a doctor. We went in to the hospital and I gradually got worse and worse. I was admitted and it was found that I had a central line infection.”

That’s when doctors feared his muscles were dying and his organs beginning to slow down as all his energy was going towards keeping the heart beating.

“I knew that this was a serious moment when I overheard my doctor tell my mom that she needed to call my priests. Both of my parish priests came to the hospital, parishioners were praying for my life at church and I received Communion and anointing, possibly for the last time. It didn’t really hit me that it could have been the end for me at that moment. But after having such amazing support from my family, friends, and priests, I felt more at peace. Looking back and knowing that I could have been receiving my last Sacraments is a terrible thought, but I believe that having my faith so close to me during those moments and receiving Christ in the Eucharist gave me the extra strength needed to power through and live.”

“Within two hours after receiving the Sacraments, Chris was improving,” recalled Riedman’s mom, Karol. “The doctor said, ‘Mrs. Riedman, our antibiotics alone could not have worked that fast.’”

Riedman put his trust in God, prayer and his newfound Catholic faith as he converted from the Lutheran faith nearly six years ago. Before that time he had very little knowledge about Catholicism with views that were somewhat harsh and skewed. Since that time he’s learned so much about his Catholic faith only to realize that all his childhood perceptions were inaccurate.

“I give a lot of credit to close friends that were a positive impact on my life and led me to the Church. But it really came down to attending Mass. I remember clearly the first time I attended Mass and I was immediately captivated. I felt the presence of Christ in a way that I had never experienced before. After attending Mass a few more times, I really fell in love. I knew in my heart that this was where I needed to be, and Christ was calling me to His Church. But having Catholicism, having the healing power of the Church, I wasn’t afraid. If I wouldn’t have been Catholic and didn’t know Christ in His Sacraments, I could have easily lost hope and given up. But with Him, especially in the Eucharist, I found strength.”

University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt) gets ready to exchange zucchettos with Pope Francis

University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt) gets ready to exchange zucchettos with Pope Francis

And here he is now able to share another life-changing papal experience with friends, classmates and his parents who were waiting back home in Bismarck to hear from their son.

“My parents knew that I was going to attempt an exchange so they were waiting to hear what happened after I returned to campus,” said Riedman. “I had to FaceTime them separately but when I did, I showed them the zucchetto that I had received. I remember my mom was so happy she had tears and my dad was in a car wash and exploded with excitement. I was afraid that he would jump out of the car.”

So what’s next for the zucchetto and what’s next for Riedman? The zucchetto is safe with Riedman in a Ziploc bag. He’s not sure where it will end up, but his church in Bismarck holds a place in his heart.

Pope Francis gets ready to size up the zucchetto he is about to exchange with University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt). This papal occurrence was made popular by Pope Saint John Paul II.

Pope Francis gets ready to size up the zucchetto he is about to exchange with University of Mary Rome Campus student Chris Riedman (in red shirt). This papal occurrence was made popular by Pope Saint John Paul II.

“I have a few ideas, one of which involves displaying it for a period time at my home parish of St. Anne’s in Bismarck. I love St. Anne’s for its charm and of course for the wonderful people and holy priests that make it what it is. But St. Anne’s is also where I first experienced a real call to Catholicism. I was also confirmed there and received my first Holy Communion there. The zucchetto is an amazing possession, but it can only do so much sitting at home. Something like that needs to be displayed and shared with others.”

And sharing is what Riedman is all about. His entire life opens up like an inspirational book with twists and turns that become one big learning experience that would not only have his current classmates sitting on the edge of their classroom seats, but also his future students riveted. Riedman hopes to begin his teaching career back home in Bismarck at St. Mary’s Central High School—a place where learning about the Catholic faith all started for him.

“St. Mary’s made a great impact on me and encouraged me to grow in my faith. It was there where I decided that I wanted to spend my future career getting kids excited about the faith and encouraging them to live it out in everything that they do. For me, my faith is the most important aspect of my life and I want to share that joy with as many people as I can.”