During a Wednesday general audience with Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Square, Luke Silvestri and his family from Las Vegas had top tier seats. They had applied for tickets through the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Visitors’ Office in Rome, but they point to Luke as the reason they made their way to the front.

Luke Silvestri waits for the papal audience to begin.

“He made friends with the Swiss Guard, the Gendarme officer and the papal ushers,” says his father, Jim Silvestri, chairman of Bishop Gorman High School’s Advisory Council. “Luke got us to where we wanted to be by working the guys in the tuxes!”

Pope Francis greets Luke.

Luke has Down syndrome and was the first student at St. Viator Parish School’s groundbreaking Micah Program. It is believed to be the only inclusion program at a Catholic school in Nevada, and one the parish strongly supports. Consequently, Luke has been immersed in religious formation since first grade, and last year he trained to become an altar server.

Luke befriends two of the papal ushers.

Pope Francis is known for having a special affection for persons with disabilities. Before the 50th anniversary of Special Olympics, in 2018, Pope Francis said “God has a special place for the disabled.” Likewise, in 2016, he tweeted that “People with disabilities are a gift for the family and an opportunity to grow in love, mutual aid and unity.”

Yet, Luke and his family witnessed the pontiff’s genuine affection firsthand.

After delivering his message, Pope Francis walked down the steps and came right over to people with disabilities and their families, seated in front. The Silvestri family noticed that several people gave the pope a gift from their home country, consequently they quickly reached into their bag and retrieved a deck of playing cards from Las Vegas for Luke to give to him.

“The Pope came up to us and asked if the cards were for him,” Jim Silvestri says with a laugh. “Then he gave Luke a hug and kiss. He shook my hand, looked me straight in the eyes and said, ‘Pray for me.’

“A monsignor followed the Pope and spoke briefly to us,” he adds, “handing each of us a rosary and prayer card.”

Jim Silvestri credits the nurturing environment at St. Viator for giving his son a sense of confidence and outgoing personality. “We have been totally blown away by the acceptance that Luke and the other students have received,” he says. “How special for us to be part of the Viatorian community!”