Andrew Gibson officially felt the striking power of Pope Francis.
Growing up in foster care, the 23-year-old Maryland resident was not instilled with a strong sense of religion. But after exchanging an emotional handshake with the pontiff on Thursday, he emerged a changed man.
“The pope came over and shook my hand,” a still-shocked Gibson told PEOPLE during the pontiff’s visit to a luncheon organized by St. Maria’s Meals, a Catholic Charities-sponsored program that serves scores of people in need. “His hand was big and warm. I am still in shock. I never really had a sense of religion. I was waiting for the right moment.”
The young man said he felt the pontiff’s compassion radiate as they shook hands, and broke down in tears as he recalled their brief but meaningful interaction.
“The thing he does that nobody else does: He shook my hand and made eye contact,” he said as his voice broke. “Not everybody does that. It was really special.”
“Coming from nothing and having this opportunity is amazing,” he added.
The emotional meeting comes amid a whirlwind first trip to the United States for Pope Francis, who has made attending to the needs of the vulnerable a hallmark of his papacy.
The Pope arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday afternoon, greeted on the tarmac by President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Sasha and Malia and Vice President Joe Biden, a devout Catholic, and members of the Biden family.
The pontiff then spent time at the White House on Wednesday – after spending the night in the Vatican embassy – delivering a speech that touched on issues including immigration, climate change and marriage equality.
Later in the day Wednesday, adoring crowds greeted him as paraded around the area of the National Mall, prayed with U.S. bishops at D.C.’s St. Matthew’s Cathedral and canonized Junépero Serra during a mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
Pope Francis travels to New York City Thursday afternoon, where he plans to conduct an evening prayer service at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
On Friday, his busy schedule includes addressing the U.N. General Assembly, visiting the World Trade Center site, visiting a third-grade class in East Harlem and conducting evening Mass at Madison Square Garden.
• Reporting by PRAXILLA TRABATTONI