We rose at the crack of dawn on a beautiful Rome morning to don our wedding attire and arrive early at St. Peter’s Square, just as we were instructed. To our surprise and delight, my husband, Mark, and I had been granted permission to have our marriage blessed by Pope Francis on the second attempt—after our first request for the “sposi novelli” blessing was turned down because we’d been “married too long.”
As the Vatican normally requires newlyweds to appear for the papal blessing within the first two months of marriage, an exception was made after we explained that Hurricane Isaac had swamped the interior of our Louisiana home with six inches of water, prompting the gutting of the house along with a yearlong delay in our honeymoon. That was only part of the crazy story of the miracle of our marriage, and the crazy miracle of having it blessed by the pope.
Never married before, Mark had lived abroad as a Catholic missionary for 27 years, with 23 of those spent headquartered in a community in Rome. After 25 years of marriage I’d been widowed for two years and, frankly, expected to remain single for the rest of my life. All of that changed when our paths converged in my parish adoration chapel, to which providence had led Mark upon his recent return to America. We married a year and a half later, then traveled to Rome in 2013 for our first anniversary to tour Mark’s former stomping-grounds and see the newly elected pope--the man who would soon become, according to Gallup polls, “the most popular leader in the world.” Needless to say, we were elated.
Mark and I had no idea what to expect that day, as the “sposi novelli” blessing is somewhat shrouded in mystery, lending to the intrigue and excitement of the event. Virtually no information is given to participants about what will take place, other than the instructions to arrive at 7:00 a.m. to gain entrance to a special section of seating for the noon Wednesday audience. That, plus the advice to bring snacks and water for a long day of waiting.
We sat for five hours in front of St. Peter’s Basilica in what, by noontime, was piping hot sun. Trying our best to stay fresh (and not drip sweat on our wedding attire), we sipped water and dabbed Kleenex on our damp faces as we gleefully shared wedding stories with the other newlyweds around us.
At long last, Pope Francis appeared in the popemobile and rode through the large crowd assembled in St. Peter’s Square before taking his place on the stage directly in front of us. After delivering an address in Italian about the Church being our Mother, which Mark kindly translated into my ear, the pope gave a general blessing to the thousands of attendees before making his way through the crowd, shaking hands with hundreds of the faithful over the next hour. It was now 1:30 p.m. and we still weren’t sure if we were going to meet the pope.When Vatican guards finally told us to line up in order, our hearts soared. Pope Francis came to the newlywed section and began greeting each of the hundred or so newly married couples in attendance, personally handing each person a blessed Rosary as a gift.
When our turn came, the pope extended his hand to shake mine as we walked up, and quite spontaneously, I leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. A wave of panic came over me as I immediately thought: I don’t think I was supposed to do that! But the pope was quite at ease, smiling warmly as he held my hands and looked me directly in the eyes. He then turned to Mark to carry on a ten-minute conversation with him in his native Spanish. (The pope does not speak English and it was quite a stretch for him to deliver so many addresses in English during his visit to America.)
Mark and I were amazed that Pope Francis was completely present to us the entire time we spoke, as though we were the only other people with him on the planet, as though he had nothing else in the world to do but stand in the hot sun in one of the busiest public squares on earth and ask about our lives.
“He is a pope who has introduced us to a new style. He has abandoned the rituals, the courtly formalities … and so, somehow, he is very striking. No? Some boys and girls say: ‘He seems like one of our relatives.’ What do they mean by this? That there is a closeness, a proximity. I feel welcomed exactly as one of my family welcomes me,” Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, Prefect of the Holy See’s Secretariat for Communications, said in an interview about his new book about Pope Francis entitled “Fidelity Is Change.”
I can tell you first hand that this is true. I kissed the pope, and it felt like I had kissed a beloved father. Moreover, the successor of St. Peter gazed into my eyes—looked into me, looked through me, looked at me with the penetrating eyes of Jesus Christ. I felt seen as I’ve rarely felt seen by another human being in my entire life, and I will never forget the experience. Surely it was that same look that drew people to Jesus.
“Please pray for me,” the pope said sincerely as he closed our conversation in broken English.
And I have, without fail, every day since. Just like I pray for my own father.
Note: This article was previously published on Aleteia.