Papal Visit Playbook: SMCS Alumnus Helps Shape History
The role demanded a vast and deep skill set.
- Trilingual (English, French, and Italian)
- Experienced with heads of state and in government relations
- Adept with logistics for planning mass gatherings and large events
- Understanding of the Catholic faith
- Proficient at navigating intense pressure and ambiguity
- Available for seven straight months
“Are you kidding me?” That was his first reaction to the role’s responsibilities.
In late January 2022, with the Omicron variant raging and spiking hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 in many countries, and high absentee rates in schools in Ontario, Nicolas Pappalardo answered a phone call from a friend. It was, he says candidly, a call he thought he had safely avoided.
But it came. And he listened.
During the brief conversation, Pappalardo, a graduate of St. Michael’s College School (SMCS), Class of 1998, was advised of a ‘historic’ opportunity.
He ended the conversation by saying he would speak to his wife. The next step would be a call the next day with his potential ‘boss’ — Archbishop Richard Smith, head of the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
During that conversation, Pappalardo learned even more about the role.
The archbishop “ends the conversation with, so are you in?” recounts Pappalardo. “At that point, you’ve got to have an answer.”
He was concerned about not having experience in Indigenous relations. Another key consideration for the married father of four? His unorthodox working conditions.
“I would do this as an offering, as a penance for my sins, and nothing more,” Pappalardo says he told Archbishop Smith. “I actually did not want to be in any way the front public face of any aspect of this. I just wanted to work behind the scenes and ensure that he was the person seen as the main coordinator, and I would just basically support him.”
Conditions accepted. Position confirmed.
Title of the role? Deputy General Coordinator of the Papal Visit to Canada.
“This is consistent with my experience. I’ve worked as a chief of staff to a federal cabinet minister. I’ve worked as an advisor to former prime minister [Stephen] Harper. I’ve worked as an aide to a Papal Nuncio to the UN, and as a vice president in a private corporation,” he says highlighting the broad scope of his professional experience. All of which would serve him in this new role.
“It was fortuitous, if not providential that I happened to have just completed a major project at work and happened to be available enough to offer my time on a full-time basis for six or seven months,” he says.
Pappalardo’s other stipulation was there would be no compensation. He would fulfill these duties entirely as a volunteer.
Described as a “penitential pilgrimage” focused on a commitment to healing and recognition of the horrors suffered by Indigenous Peoples in the residential school system at the hands of the Catholic Church and colonialism, the nature of Pope Francis’ six-day visit to Canada was unprecedented in myriad ways.
History would be made at every twist and turn during the Holy Father’s trip — including the timeline for organizing it.
“Typically, you get at least 24 months or 36 months to plan a papal visit,” says Pappalardo. This one had to be organized in just six months, and with a host of extraordinary parameters.
“We want a simple, beautiful, meaningful, and frugal visit,” Pappalardo says he was told by Archbishop Smith.
An unparalleled level of sensitivity, empathy, and respect for cultural traditions, religious practices, and governmental protocols would need to be adhered to and woven into every aspect of planning and execution.
From Indigenous elders, residential school Survivors, scarred relatives and First Nations communities, to the Head of the Catholic Church (also a head of state), security and COVID-19 health and safety experts — there were plenty of voices to listen to and perspectives to consider.
Pappalardo was given two weeks to craft a proposal with the programming vision, a budget, and a timeline.
“I did some research and figured out that the most frugal papal visit in the 21st century was in Chile and cost about $3 million a day,” he says, adding World Youth Day in Toronto in 2022 cost the Church in Canada roughly $85 million including a $35 million deficit. This would have to be different.
He targeted a total cost of no more than $18 million to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).
“It was my job to recruit a team across the country that could pull this off, to develop the approach — from scratch,” continues Pappalardo.
“We pulled together this team from different parts of the country. And we planned it from our basements on Zoom. Of course, we had [advance site visits] to Edmonton and Quebec and Iqaluit.”
An initial team of 10 which he describes as the “best and brightest from dioceses across Canada,” quickly scaled to 30, then 100, and ultimately over 4,000 volunteers.
“What was amazing is that we had Catholics and non-Catholics deeply committed to either the Church, reconciliation, or both,” he says. “Open to it, to say, we’ll do this.”
The result was an overwhelming number of participants who served as volunteers or through secondments.
“The whole project also required multi-tracking,” he says. “We had to do everything on parallel tracks because there was no time to do things in sequence. Our proposals were going to the bishops and going to the Indigenous and going to the Vatican all at the same time. And, because of my previous experience in government, I knew right away that we needed to set up a federal table with all of the partners on one table. I developed a very good working relationship with Global Affairs Canada, the RCMP, Crown-Indigenous Relations, and Northern Affairs Canada. We had all the federal stakeholders around the table.” The same had to be done at the provincial and municipal levels.
A ‘typical’ day for Pappalardo involved waking up at 4:30 a.m., an endless stream of Zoom calls, hundreds of emails, multiple time zone considerations, little family interaction and bedtime — if he was lucky — at midnight. Sleepless nights were part of his norm.
All of this was happening at the same time as remote learning for his children — aged 13, 10, six, and two years old — and during a basement renovation (paused due to the papal visit planning), where his makeshift office was situated.
“I actually took a piece of drywall, didn’t even fix it to the wall. I put it behind me against the studs. And that was my Zoom backdrop for six months,” he chuckles. “I worked in this dusty, unfinished basement. And nobody really knew that.”
Pappalardo says he presented the initial proposal in less than two weeks to the Vatican. That took almost four months of refinement prior to being approved. Meanwhile, the clock ticked loudly.
“When every waking hour is so intense, you can’t really ratchet up the intensity anymore,” he says.
Some examples of things Pappalardo discovered and suddenly had to consider included: major event insurance, sourcing ‘popemobiles’, and getting the Pope on his wheelchair out of the plane in Iqaluit.
“You’ve got a plane that’s bigger than anything that normally lands there,” Pappalardo explains. “And they don’t have the equipment or the wheelchair ramp to get him out. So you’re implicitly asking DND (Department of National Defense) and you’re getting a C-17 (specialized transport aircraft) to drop off an ‘ambulift’ that isn’t available anywhere in Canada except Montreal, that you need to get to Iqaluit.”
“With the Pope’s health progression, or regression, from January to when the event actually happened — we were literally changing things as we went along. So very, very complex. This was the most challenging thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
There was, however, a moment where Pappalardo admits he had thoughts of giving up.
It involved the Vatican’s lengthy approval time for the initial proposal.
“The program that Archbishop Smith and I presented on February 7 in Rome was not that different than what we ended up doing,” he says. “It just took us three months to convince them, to get them there. And the pressure of being asked to deliver such a high-stakes, complex event in effectively two months was near crushing. And I actually broke down in tears when I had to tell the archbishop that if we didn’t get an answer by next week, for example, I could not promise that we could deliver. I wasn’t saying I’m going to quit. I said I think we need to cancel this thing.”
What got him through it?
“When you’re called by the Church to do something for the Church, you don’t have to fully understand why — you have to trust that it’s part of God’s plan,” he says. “And like St. Peter, on the shores of the lake — you drop your nets, and you follow. And you trust. It’s really about discipleship.”
Then there was the unwavering support of his wife — whom he met at World Youth Day 2002 — from the get-go.
“We both understood exactly the magnitude of what was about to unfold,” he says. “This would require enormous personal sacrifice. We both understood it through the eyes of faith.”
There was a “higher” purpose of this project he says. It led Pappalardo to experience a different form of leadership.
“Mission-based leadership is when you don’t have the time, you don’t have the resources, and you don’t think you have the hope,” he explains. “But you bring everybody together, and you say — this is our mission. Everyone buys into it. Our mission was to facilitate an encounter between the Indigenous Peoples and in a special way, Indigenous Survivors of residential schools — and the Pope.”
Pappalardo says the people around him served as key anchors throughout and especially during the most challenging of moments.
“Our team was fantastic! Everybody worked very, very hard, and very collaboratively and intensely.”
His resolve not to give up was also helped, he says, by the lessons he learned as a student at St. Michael’s College School — decades earlier.
“St. Michael’s is a critical part of almost every success in my life,” he says.
“It shaped in many ways my path of faith, commitment to the Church, prepared me with the discipline and the knowledge to excel in a secular world with various skill sets, prepared me for law school, prepared me for all of the jobs that I’ve done. The commitment to goodness, discipline, and knowledge infused a pattern for me which has allowed me to serve in this way.”
Almost two months since completing his role as the Deputy General Coordinator of the Papal Visit to Canada, Nicolas Pappalardo ’98 summarizes the impact of his experience this way: “It was intense, and it was rewarding. And we’re still trying to process what just happened.”