By Barb Arland-Fye
The popemobile made its way through a cobblestone corridor in St. Peter’s Square as I stood against a barricade just hoping to see the face of Pope Francis up close. Aiming my iPhone toward the popemobile to try to capture a photograph, I called out “Papa!” (pope in Italian), and it seemed as if he looked at me with a smile. Maybe he was smiling at someone else, or all of us in the crowd that included members of our Catholic Messenger pilgrimage. I simply felt blessed to see the leader of our universal Catholic Church up close and personal, and will treasure the photo and the memory.
We see media coverage all the time of Pope Francis kissing babies and caressing the cheeks of older folks and people with physical or developmental disabilities. But to witness those tender gestures in person leaves an indelible impression. Ellora Atkinson, one of our pilgrims, told me later she was struck by the heartfelt affection in my voice as I called out to the Holy Father, “Papa.”
Her comment touched me deeply because I hadn’t had time to process my own feelings about this remarkable pilgrimage experience to Rome and Assisi with 51 other companions on this journey of faith. I’d been too absorbed in getting other pilgrims’ reactions to the papal audience, the canonization of St. Teresa of Kolkata, the passage through the four Holy Doors and visits to the catacombs, Assisi and other places.
Who knew when we planned this pilgrimage that Pope Francis would hold an extra general audience each month on a Saturday during the Year of Mercy and that one of those Saturday audiences would be held during our visit? Or that Father Marty Goetz, our pilgrimage’s spiritual leader, would work miracles with our tour company, Select International, to get our pilgrims into that audience. Who knew that Enza Volpe, our pilgrimage group guide, would be on the mark in advising us where to sit for the best opportunity to see the Holy Father without having to use binoculars?
Her success in getting us from one checkpoint to the next so that we could get good seats was a gift from God. “I dig the well and the Lord fills it,” says Enza, an effervescent Italian who speaks English like an American.
For many of our pilgrims, me included, the general audience Sept. 3 with Pope Francis, who honored people working in the area of mercy, rivaled the canonization of St. Teresa of Kolkata as a pilgrimage highlight.
“It was incredible to see the leader of our Catholic Church so close up,” said Ken Tisinger of St. Peter Parish in Buffalo. “It was surreal.” His wife, Chae, said she had tears in her eyes. She never imagined she would see Pope Francis within a few feet of her. “It filled my heart to see him,” she told me.
Pope Francis is “the most powerful man in the world and he made eye contact with me,” Paula Logan of Ss. John & Paul Parish in Burlington told me. “He’s mine. He’s our pope.” She and Jane Tadelski, also of Ss. John & Paul Parish, said they took a picture of themselves after the Holy Father passed by. They deleted that photo because they were sobbing hysterically. Like me, they watched Pope Francis smile so warmly and kiss a baby who had been lifted up to him on the other side of the cobblestone corridor from us.
“I didn’t think I’d live long enough to see him,” Jane said, getting choked up. “My dad was a Catholic his whole life. He would have loved to see Pope Francis. To be within 3 feet of him was unreal.”
“It was awesome to be that close and to see that smile and to see him blessing that baby right in front of us,” said Ann Fisher of St. John Vianney Parish in Bettendorf. “You could feel his enthusiasm in the crowd around him,” her husband, Mike, said.
“My impression was, how well loved he is,” observed Ellora Atkinson of Fifield, Wis. “It wasn’t just me; it was the collective love of the Italians and people from all over the world.”
The papal audience wasn’t on our itinerary. “Do you think that’s OK?” Fr. Marty asked me. “Definitely,” I said. I have the photo to prove it.
(Barb Arland-Fye, editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)