Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Newlyweds in Italy: Meeting Blessed John Paul II

"This was a day of a truly incredible blessing."
Travel Journal, Wednesday, July 3, 1996 

On the previous day, my new wife and I had obtained "Sposi Novelli" tickets to Pope John Paul II's Wednesday audience. The first several rows in front of the hall were reserved for various groups, including newlyweds. We thought we might have a close look at the Pope, from those front rows.

But as we boarded the bus back from the Vatican on Tuesday afternoon, we saw an old friend of mine, Fr. Sylvester Catallo, a Capuchin priest who could have been Padre Pio's twin, and who had been pastor of St. John the Evangelist in Woodstock, Virginia years ago, when I was in college. I had taught CCD there in 1982. He and his pilgrimage group were getting off the bus, so we spoke briefly. We told him about the tickets, and he said something very important: "Go and get on the line first thing in the morning. Get there as early as you can. If you get seats in the front row you can meet the Pope!"

We arrived on Wednesday morning before 9:00 AM, and the Swiss Guards took us through a special entrance. Thus we found seats in the front row of the Paul VI Audience Hall, right behind the famous waist-high barricade that one always used to see in pictures of the Pope greeting people at the General Audiences. In time we would see how right Fr. Sylvester had been. The area was soon packed with people as was the rest of the hall. Only those in front, scrunched against the barricade, had any chance of touching the Pope much less speaking with him personally. But we would make the most of our chance.

The Pope arrived at noon and spoke to the crowded hall. He received delegations and greeted pilgrims from different nationalities, who responded in the crowd with cheers and the waving of flags and banners. And here we take up the travel journal:
Finally, the Pope began to make his way along the front of the crowd. We were crunched on every side. When he came close, there was something that I sensed for the first time (after having seen the Pope so many times from a distance) -- the simple human warmth, the affectionate nature, and also the human vulnerability, the enormous vulnerability of this man who is not a "religious superstar," but who is a man, created with a need to love and to be loved.
When he stood before me and Eileen, we touched him and embraced him (burying face, lips, anything available, against his hands and arms) as though he were our Grandpa. Without any loss of reverence, we were filled with an overflowing and spontaneous affection, a familial affection.
We had a brief conversation. We told the Pope that were were from America, that we were newlyweds on pilgrimage to Rome, and that we desired his blessing on our marriage. And so the Pope placed his hand on each of our heads and traced the sign of the Cross while pronouncing his benediction.
We spoke for a moment. We gave him one of our wedding cards with the verses from John 17 ("that they may be one..."). Above all, we told him that we loved him. He looked tenderly into Eileen's eyes, and then he patted me on the cheek (as shown in the Vatican Press Office photograph, one of several we were able to purchase later on).
Finally, he began to move on, greeting others who stuck their hands out next to us, speaking again in Italian. [But I couldn't suppress my overflowing, excessive nature, and for once I'm glad I didn't.] I shouted to him one last time, "We love you, Holy Father!" And as he continued down the row, he spoke again very distinctly in English, "God bless you."
And so our marriage was blessed, personally, by the Pope. Also, I believe, we gave something to him; we were able to express personally to him the affection we have for him on account of the love and the suffering that shape his whole mission, and through which he has given us so much. And I think that we gave him comfort -- we stayed with him, even if only for a moment, and our companionship with him in Christ was evident, and was a source of strength for us and also for him.
We believe we received a great grace on this day, seventeen years ago. And now with our five children and many years of joys and trials, we have seen this grace continue to unfold in our marriage and family life. For his part, Blessed John Paul II (now on the threshold of being declared a canonized saint) offered his sufferings for the Church and for every human being during the rest of his life, and in the remaining eight-and-a-half years of his long Way of the Cross he carried us along with so many others. Then, almost from the moment of his death, I sensed with confidence his intercessory closeness, his new way of continuing a companionship with us.

This picture is now a uniquely personal icon in our dining room. The greatest saint of our times -- and this great apostle of the sanctity of marriage and the family -- seems to be holding me and Eileen in his strong arms, and I know that his prayers accompany us in suffering and many trials. Every day I pray for his intercession: "Hold on to us, keep us always together, and obtain for us God's blessing."

His intercession is powerful before God, and I know that he will pray in the same way for any couple who invokes his aid, or any person.