The Pope's Interaction With A Girl With Down Syndrome Was Even Sweeter Than People Realize

It's a moment little Gemma Pompili will hopefully remember for a lifetime.

Last weekend, a photo of Pope Francis holding hands with a young girl with Down Syndrome went viral under the incorrect pretense that the child was attending a regular papal service and had walked towards the Pontiff. According to the incorrect narrative, which went viral on Twitter, Reddit, and other social media platforms, security then attempted to remove the girl, only to be stopped by the Pope who instead invited her to sit next to him and hold his hand while he read his homily.

Though that thoughtful gesture sounds like something Pope Francis would do, the truthful story behind the below image holds more meaning than a simple good deed.

According to Buzzfeed News, the child in the photo is Gemma Pompili. Pompili and her family actually visited the Pope back in October 2017 (when the picture was taken) as part of a pre-organized meeting between the religious leader and the Italian Special Olympics football team, and in that meeting the 5-year-old was tasked with giving Pope Francis a gift of Special Olympics-branded training shoes.


Based on a story published on the Special Olympics website at the time, part of the meeting also included the pope holding a private audience with athletes of all abilities who planned to participate in the Special Olympics Unified Football Tournament. In addressing that group, Pope Francis reportedly discussed the importance of inclusivity in sports.

"In these days you will have the opportunity to reaffirm the importance of unified sport, through which athletes with and without intellectual disability play together," he reportedly declared. "This beautiful reality, which you carry out with commitment and conviction, nourishes the hope of a positive and fruitful future of sport, because it makes it a real opportunity for inclusion and involvement."

At some point either before or during the pope's speech, The Sun reports Gemma climbed on to a chair next to him and, despite urging from her parents, showed no interest in coming down. It was at that point that Pope Francis, who shared his own snapshots of his encounter with Gemma on Instagram a few months ago, took her hand.

While the photos of Pope Francis and Gemma are adorable to look at regardless of the circumstances, it's important to note security was never involved, and tenacious Gemma found her way next to the Pontiff all by herself. And though Gemma was likely too young to fully understand the pope's speech about inclusivity, his words will likely carry great meaning for her (and others) as she grows older.

Pope Francis has long been a champion of people with disabilities, and last April he even quietly rented a private beach for people with disabilities to enjoy.

Cover image via Philip Chidell /


Subscribe to our newsletter and get the latest news and exclusive updates.