We did a lot of things wrong when we went to Rome.
Somehow, we didn’t eat any great food.
We went to so many churches without knowing anything about them. Does “Saint Whoever-This-Is, pray for us” even count as a prayer?
We went to the Vatican and did not go into St. Peter’s Basilica (the line was about a mile long and twenty people wide, we had been standing in the sun for five hours, we were starving, and we had tickets for the Musei Vaticani. some have strongly suggested we made the wrong choice).
We walked the Musei Vaticani after said five hours of standing in the sun (I was pregnant and in heels and have never been in so much misery surrounded by so much beauty). We spent the rest of that day in bed watching Italian Netflix.
We felt like idiots after hours of wandering around pointing at different columns and things, wondering, “Is that The Forum? Is THAT The Forum? Oh, THAT must be The Forum!” before realizing that like, everything around us composed The Forum. Heh.
Worst of all, we wandered down some abandoned train tracks at midnight trying to get to our BnB and accidentally interrupted a meeting of the mafia probably. Not pictured.
Despite our ignorance and mistakes, it was still the unquestionable highlight of our otherwise serene and wonderful European tour. Here’s why.
Thanks to a well-timed negotiation competition for law school, Kyle had school-sponsored flights to Dublin and back for the week of spring break in March 2016. Of course, I had to go along. After Dublin, we planned an economical exploration of Oxford, to see some good friends, and Rome, to see the Pope.
Rory’s godfather and his lovely wife had honeymooned in Europe just a couple of months before. They managed to obtain tickets for a special audience with Pope Francis for newlyweds in which he blessed their marriages and they had their pictures taken with him. Apparently this is called a sposa novelli.
Although we couldn’t be in Rome for a sposa novelli, the Vatican was holding the Year of Jubilee audience in the Piazza San Pietro while we were there. We heard that couples wearing their wedding clothes would be ushered to the front row and have the opportunity to meet the Pope. We couldn’t get tickets, but our friends told us that just being dressed as bride and groom was enough for them to be escorted in by the Swiss Guard, tickets unchecked. We had to try.
We showed up outside the Vatican the morning of the audience, looking like we did on our wedding day seven months earlier (minus the fancy hair and makeup), and found ourselves at the back of a huge security line. Everyone else was clutching big green paper tickets.
When we got to the front, I looked around for the closest guy in stripey blue and yellow and we sanguinely presented ourselves. Miraculously, he unhooked the velvet rope and waved us past the crowds of thousands upon thousands of people, without any mention of tickets. A few people noticed us and called out, “Felice Matrimonio!!”
We ended up alongside and behind the stage, separated from the front by two rows of chairs and two wooden barriers. Although we were confused and a little worried that we would be blocked from meeting Pope Francis after all, we weren’t going to question the guards. A few more newlywed couples showed up.
Eventually they moved us up one row, and then a little while later all the way across the piazza to the other side of the stage in the very front row.
We could hear Pope Francis long before we could see him. The Popemobile slowly looped through the throngs of adoring pilgrims who were cheering and screaming and waving yellow and white flags as he passed on his way to the stage.
His Holiness gave a short but beautiful Easter message. You can read the whole transcript here.
“By washing the feet of the Apostles, Jesus wished to reveal God’s mode of action in regard to us, and to give an example of his ‘new commandment’ to love one another as He has loved us, that is, laying down his life for us. John repeats this in his First Letter: ‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth.'”
He concluded with special greetings.
“I greet the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors taking part in today’s Audience, including those from Ireland, the Philippines, Canada and the United States. I thank the choirs for their praise of God in song. With prayerful good wishes that the present Jubilee of Mercy will be a moment of grace and spiritual renewal for you and your families, I invoke upon all of you joy and peace in our Lord Jesus Christ. God bless you all!”
His final few words were especially meaningful to us.
“Dear young people, learn…how to defend the values in which you believe; …and you, dear newlyweds, may you be God’s collaborators in the task of raising your children.”
Dozens of pilgrimage groups were presented to him, each one joyfully hollering from their corner of the multitude as their affiliations and locations were read. We even recognized a few names and places, like Christendom College, the alma mater of several close friends.
It took about an hour from when Pope Francis finished the address until he reached us. He loves to meet people and touch them. A guy in my RCIA class was part of the Pope’s security detail on his trip to the United States in 2015. According to him, it’s a very difficult job because His Holiness always wants to reach out and be amidst the crowds who are drawn to him everywhere he goes.
Finally, Pope Francis was making his way toward us along the wooden barrier separating us from the stage, greeting and blessing each married couple. The air itself was buzzing with the excitement of the crowds, magnetized to his radiating presence. “Papa Francisco! Papa Francisco!” they screamed.
Papa Francisco paused and looked straight into our eyes. He treated us like we were the only people there in that moment as he stopped to bless us. I could feel the immense, life-giving love of God pouring through him to the millions of people whom he is called to shepherd, love brimming with grace and peace and deed and truth.
So I did a kind of embarrassing thing.
Rory wasn’t showing yet, and determined to tell His Holiness about my baby, I pointed to my stomach and coerced Latin, Spanish, and Italian into an awkward plea.
“Benedictus por bambino!”
The Pope looked kindly at me as he responded.
“Where are you from?”
Oh. Yeah. I probably could have used English. Kyle answered, “America.” Still recovering, I sheepishly blurted out, “California!”
The Holy Father smiled at us and said a blessing over our baby.
Then he reached out his hand and touched my belly, smiling.
It was probably about thirty seconds in total, but that moment with the Pope truly felt like a tiny piece of Forever. In the end, he solemnly asked us to pray for him and we promised. He moved on to the next couple and we just looked at each other, overflowing with joy.
Afterward, while talking to another bride who was there, I shared that Pope Francis had blessed our baby. Her face lit up. “That means everything is going to be all right,” she declared.
And it was.
What would you want to say if you met Pope Francis? Tell me in the comments or tweet me @careyhelmick!
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