By KEVIN CHIRI
Tammany West news
MANDEVILLE – When Michael Hunt received a phone call in 2000 from U.S. Ambassador Lindy Boggs asking the famed poster artist to create a work for Pope John Paul II he remembers feeling “shocked and elated.”
However, the experience of going to the Vatican to present the pope the poster in front of 70,000 people in St. Peter’s Square left Hunt with many other emotions, memories and feelings—some that bring him a laugh to this day.
“I was only a young man in my early 30s,” he recalled. “I wasn’t Catholic. I didn’t know any of the protocol to meet the pope, and probably most surprisingly is that no one told me what to do.”
Hunt was dressed in a dark suit with a navy blue shirt, outfitted with a yellow tie, as he was ushered onto a stage where the Pope would soon show up in his “Popemobile.”
“There was a long red carpet leading up to the place where the pope would sit,” Hunt said. “I was standing there with people everywhere—there are about 70,000 people who gather in St. Peter’s Square anytime the pope is going to make a public appearance.
“The surprising thing was that with so many people waiting for the pope to arrive it was so incredibly quiet,” he said. “I was kind of nervous, but I was young and didn’t really appreciate what I was getting to do.”
But the bigger problem turned out to be Hunt’s lack of knowledge about the correct protocol when meeting the pope.
“Looking back at it all, I probably broke every rule of protocol there is,” he said with a laugh. “I think they assume anyone who is going to meet the pope is Catholic, but I was Lutheran.”
There were Swiss guards all around Hunt and they ended up being his only advisors. The pope suddenly arrived and was brought to his seat about 20 feet in front of Hunt, who said he was worried because he had no idea where the painting was.
“I told the guards I didn’t have the painting and they told me not to worry. Then as I’m wondering what is going to happen, one guard tells me that I’m supposed to be kneeling,” he said.
Hunt remembers dropping to his knees and told to approach the pope.
“So I basically walked on my knees 20 feet on a red carpet to get to him,” he said.
Kneeling in front of the pope he was told by the guard “you should kiss the father’s ring.”
Hunt was later told that he kissed the wrong hand, which brought a smile from the pope who said, “you’re not Catholic, are you?”
Hunt responded that “nobody told me what to do.”
The pope was presented the painting and smiled at Hunt, who was wearing sunglasses the entire time—another “no-no” he was later told.
“He told me he loved the painting and said it reminded him of his time in New Orleans and meeting Al Hirt, who played Ava Maria on his trumpet. I knew Al Hirt very well and told the pope that Hirt said he never knew the music and basically ‘winged it’ throughout the song, which got the pope to laugh,” Hunt said.
Hunt said he had gone into the Vatican gift shop before the meeting and purchased 30 rosaries to have a memento of his visit. Suddenly the pope said he wanted to “bless my family and asked if I had anything to bless.
“I pulled a tangled mess of rosaries out of my pocket so the pope laughed again and said he had a rosary to bless,” Hunt said. “The entire event reminded me of a rock concert. The people were so excited to have him there and to see the poster.”
The blessed rosary later proved to be special to Hunt when his son died on his 22nd birthday from a reaction to supplements he was taking with his martial arts, supplements that he had ordered from China.
“When my son died I put the blessed rosary in the coffin with him,” Hunt said.
Hunt has a 19-year-old daughter, Lauren, whom he said is an “amazing artist.”