Trading Hats With the Pope: ‘He Radiates Joy Unlike Anyone Else’

Two Boston College students made the switch with the holy figure while studying in Italy.

Photo via Ethan Mack and Katie Rich

Photos via Ethan Mack and Katie Rich

Seeing Pope Francis up close is one thing. But trading skullcaps with the dignitary during a public appearance is a tradition that only a lucky few have been able to pull off.

The day before the Pope’s arrival to St. Peter’s, Boston College students Ethan Mack and Katie Rich, who are studying abroad in Italy, decided to purchase a white zucchetto—the skullcap worn by the Pope— for a little over $60, in hopes that they could exchange it with him; a tradition many others have tried to carry out before.

“Ethan and I had talked about possibly trying to exchange zucchettos with Pope Francis for a while, since we knew of two separate groups of college students who had done it.  Both times, Pope Francis had tried on their zucchetto, but said it was too big and gave it back to them.  Ethan and I thought that at best, this would happen to us,” said Rich.

But Rich and Mack had better luck than their fellow college students, after securing a spot the following day up against the barricades that lined the roadway where the holy figure would appear.

Recently named TIME magazine’s “Person of the Year,” Pope Francis asked the driver of his “popemobile” to slow the car down, after seeing Mack’s extended hand holding the zucchetto in the crowd. “We thought he wouldn’t see us, but we both yelled, ‘Papa!’, and at that second he turned around [and] saw us,” said Rich.

One of the Pope’s guards walked back over to the two Boston College students, retrieved the hat, and brought it to the Pope. The Pope then put it on his head, after reading a note the students had slipped inside that said “Boston College Loves Our Jesuit Pope,” and ordered the guard to bring his own skullcap back to Mack and Rich.

“Pope Francis put our zucchetto in his to check the sizes, and then gave his old one to the guard. The Pope then gave a nod and smiled right at us. He took off with the one I bought and the guard gave us his original one,” Mack told Boston in an email.

Rich said after they waved to the Pope, and he waved back, they stood amongst the crowd, and people gathered around to see the white papal skullcap. “A lot of people in the crowd around us asked if they could touch it, kiss it, or take a picture with it, which we allowed,” she said.

If they wanted to, the students could try and sell the cap—a similar one is going for nearly $1,000 on eBay—but because they feel the experience should be shared with the community, they are considering donating the zucchetto back to the community when they return home from Rome.

While trading zucchettos with the Pope was an experience in and of itself, just being close enough to him while in Italy is what will truly stick in Rich’s memory for a lifetime. “The best part of the whole encounter was just seeing Pope Francis smile at us.  He radiates joy in a way unlike anyone else,” said Rich.