-- When Sister Norma Pimentel participated in a virtual papal audience hosted by ABC News this week, she was excited to see Pope Francis, but never expected him to address her directly.
Sister Pimentel runs a welcome center at Sacred Heart Church in McAllen, Texas, which has helped more than 20,000 immigrants. Pope Francis was watching and listening intently via satellite from the Vatican as Sister Pimentel was introduced briefly. Then, after young mothers and children who had just arrived shared their stories, the Holy Father returned to the sister who had been mentioned before.
“There was a sister there of a religious order, I want to see her,” he said.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s me,’” Sister Pimentel said, reflecting on the moment afterwards. “He’s actually speaking to me. And then I saw his little hand go like, ‘come, come, come, come,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.’ I felt like a little child called forth by their dear father.”
The 62-year-old nun made her way to the center aisle and stood before Pope Francis’ smiling face, on a 9-by-9-foot screen.
“I want to thank you," Francis said. "And through you to thank all the sisters of religious orders in the U.S. for the work that you have done and that you do in the United States. It's great. I congratulate you. Be courageous. Move forward.
And then the pope, 78, said something she could never have imagined: “I'll tell you one other thing. Is it inappropriate for the Pope to say this? I love you all very much.“
She bowed, her hands in prayer, and returned to her seat. Then the tears began to flow. “I’m still in heaven still experiencing his presence,” she said. “He’s telling me I love you very much at the end I was like, ‘Oh, wow. ... I will cherish and treasure this moment forever. I am blessed.”
"Pope Francis and the People" will air in a one-hour special edition of ABC News’ "20/20" on Friday, Sept. 4, at 10 p.m. ET. In addition, the event will be posted in its entirety in both English and Spanish on ABCNews.com.
A STRONG SIGNAL TO U.S. SISTERS
It was a personal moment of triumph for Sister Norma, but Vatican experts say it also sent an important message to Catholic sisters across the United States that their work is valued and supported by the church.
“Especially after the Vatican’s recent investigation of Catholic sisters, Pope Francis’ beautiful words of encouragement remind people of the incredible work these women do day in and day out,” said the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor-at-large for America magazine. “It’s a sign that he ‘gets it’ when it comes to Catholic sisters in this country.”
The investigation of the sisters by the Vatican, which began under Pope Benedict, was incredibly painful for U.S. women in the church, according to ABC News consultant Cokie Roberts.
“This is a very strong signal that he admires the work of American women religious, and that the moment of discord is over,” Roberts said. “These nuns are doing exactly what the pope is talking about: They work on the margins with people who need help.”
‘WE TOO LOVE POPE FRANCIS’
Francis showed his support for the U.S. Catholic sisters in April when he met with the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) in Rome. LCWR executive director Sister Joan Marie Steadman, who was at the meeting with the pope, said she was heartened by the pope’s recent
“I was very moved by the pope’s recognition of Sister Norma and the critical work she is doing on behalf of immigrants, and was heartened that he extended his gratitude to all Catholic sisters serving in the United States,“ Steadman said in a statement to ABC News. “We will take heart from his words to be courageous and to keep moving forward, and I am sure sisters will delight in his spontaneous expression of affection as well. We too love Pope Francis."
Martin told ABC News, “The pope speaks with both gestures and words, just like Jesus did, His gesture of meeting with the LGWR leadership, coupled with his words now of support for this sister, shows his deep admiration and support for the Catholics sisters in this country.”
As for Sister Norma, she believes the Holy Spirit was guiding what transpired in the church. “It’s a new beginning right?” she said. “It is a historical moment where our holy father acknowledges and recognizes the wonderful work that we as nuns in the US are doing and are committed in making a difference in the lives of so many people.”
For more information on Sister Norma Pimentel and the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley visit their website HERE.