Friday, April 25, 2014

The Story of Our Meeting With St. John Paul II For the Blessing of Our Marriage

Okay, you guys, please, please, please tell me that you are as excited, over the moon, happy- dance-happy as I am that, on Sunday, our beloved Blessed Pope John Paul II is going to be canonized a saint??!!

In celebration of such a great honor, Steve and I had planned to host a big party here this weekend fully equipped with polish food, beer, games and lots of fanfare, but early contractions (hello!) and a fire (I know, talk about plans going up in flames), caused us to hit the pause button on all festivities.  Since Steve is still playing fire-fighter out west, and I'm here with the chillins and can't sleep, I thought I'd console myself by accepting Jenny's invitation at Mama Needs Coffee to write a little JP II love story for the link-up she's hosting.  If I can't party in honor of my favorite saint, the least I can do is write ya'll a story...

I really don't know how else to say this, but technically, my cheek is a third class relic.  Yeah, that means just what you think it means.  It means that the man has touched my face.  I know, I know! I swear I have fewer sun spots and wrinkles on that side, but as for the holiness rubbing off....well, if only you knew how many times I've been to confession this month. Anyway, back to the cheek - I mean the blessings (yes, plural, blessings, details shortly) - well, I've always wanted to write something down about our meeting with Pope John Paul II, one that our kids could read someday, and now seems like the perfect time to do just that.  And, you can read it too, if you like.

Grab yourself some vino.  Or cafe.  Or tea.  Then, come back and I'll try not to put you to sleep.
Rewind life to June 10, 2000, the day Steve and I were united in holy matrimony (applause and glitter and kissing). A beautiful day, the beginning of our life together!!

Fast forward two weeks to a sunny afternoon when I'm planting flowers out in the yard and unexpectedly fall over in the grass dizzy and nauseous. I wasn't just love sick. I was pregnant (more applause, yay for babies!)!

Fast forward again to a trip to Kansas City where a visit with an old college friend brings about an introduction to a wonderful priest, Father, McDonald, who, upon congratulating us on our recent nuptials says, "Did you know that you can have your marriage blessed by the Holy Father?
Oh, yeah, sure we knew that....uh, no, no, actually, we didn't.
"You just have to write a letter of request to the Vatican secretary, and of course it helps if you have someone write it for you....someone who, say, might have an inside connectiono at the Vaticono."

(We may have fallen on our knees at that moment and begged Father McMiracle to make this happen for us...but I'm not mind's a little fuzzy on that one.)
*Side Note*
The thought of going to Rome to meet the Holy Father was almost overwhelming for the two of us. The seeds of admiration, which would blossom into great blooms of love, for him were planted in my heart in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver.  He inspired me to open the Catechism, to pray the rosary with devotion, to pour over the gospels and to know and love my Catholic faith like never before.  After seeing the Holy Father at WYD in Paris, Steve was also inspired by his message - Be not afraid (to serve and follow Christ)!  His shelves at Franciscan were packed with encyclicals, letters, and books written by the pope, ones we still dig into and find nourishment in today.  In a word, to meet and be blessed by our great shepherd would be an unspeakable privilege.  And, here we were, in a completely unexpected situation, standing in the face of a grand possibility!!

Pause for a reality check: Two kids (plus bebe in le belly), just married, no dinero, no connections (until now, hey, hey, hey!) possibly going to Rome to meet the man who inspired the youth around the world, upheld the dignity of women as no pope had before, passionately defended life at every stage, played a key role in bringing down communism, a poet, a philosopher, an athlete a servant!  We knew that one way or another, God willing, if our request should be granted, we would find a way to make the trip.

A couple of weeks later we received a phone call from Father McDonald, who informed us that he had received a letter from the Vatican with confirmation of our acceptance for a marital blessing. Our names were officially on the calendar for the November blessings.  The only requirements for the fulfillment of the invitation were that we arrive on time and dress in our wedding attire.

No problem! We can do that! 

Somehow we convinced our parents that trip was a wonderful idea, scraped together money for plane tickets, found some sweet nuns who were willing to let us stay in their guest house for 8 days and even squeezed our way into a SECOND meeting with the Holy Father (yes, a private audience!).

When the big day came for us to attend the blessing, walking the short distance from the convent to St. Peter's Square, we were met by numerous vivacious and very outgoing Italians who went out of their way to blow us kisses, and praise, "Beautiful! Magnifico!"  One gentlemen who passed us even boldly proclaimed through a thick accent, "Have a great conjugal life!" If only we could show him a snapshot of our family! We still laugh over his exuberant expression today!
{Steve shares with the Holy Father that we're expecting our first child, and Benedict receives a blessing in my womb!}

Now, as you can see in exhibit A, here, showing up in the wedding attire wasn't as easy as we thought it would be, at least for me, anyway.  Spanx hadn't been invented yet, so the things it took to make that dress fit at 5 months pregnant are nothing short of miraculous.  Pardon the overflow in the bosom region.  A shawl might have been handy there. What was I saving our cash for, gelato?? Souvenirs??  Honey child, why didn't you buy yourself a shawl, or borrow one from one of the 10,000 zealous old Italian ladies who super-piously elbowed you out of the way to get a good seat in the square that morning?  Oh, Dio Mamma Mia!

The marriage blessings typically took place during the pope's Wednesday audience, a time when he would greet the public and teach on a particular topic for anyone who wanted to come and listen. Thousands of people squeezed into the square that beautiful, sun-drenched day, and all of the couples who arrived for the blessing were given special seating close to the pope's stage.

The event was all very surreal.  When it came time for the blessing, there was so much joy amongst the couples, and the Holy Father, who is known for his writings on marriage and family, also shared in our enthusiasm.  Such a beautiful and profound connection between the vocation of priesthood and marriage!!

The moment passed by in an instant, and Steve and I both walked away wishing it could have lasted just a bit longer.  If only we knew then that we would be meeting him again!!

Do you need a refill, a stretch, a foot rub??

Okay, encounter of the second kind, here we go....

While sipping very strong coffee (the kind where you first pour cream into your cup and then add a splash of coffee but the sauce in the cup is still nearly black) during breakfast at the convent my ever-so-shy and terribly tactful husband moseyed right up to one of the sisters and asked her how we (everything is we now), would go about getting a private audience with the pope.  I've tried to erase her "you're an American, so of course you think you can do this" expression from my mind, but it's still there, stuck like glue.  In a very charitable way, she explained the protocol: submit a letter of request to the Vatican secretary then, wait for a response.

Then, he did it.  He asked for paper, a pen and an envelope.  (This is the guy who asks for free apple pies at the McDonalds drive-thru and almost always finds one in his sack.  Given his appalling success rate at Micky D's why shouldn't he believe he could sneak us into a private audience with the pope??)

She didn't exactly roll her eyes, but I could tell it took all of her optic might to keep those peepers in place.  Up to our room we skipped to compose a letter of request.  After trying to make penmanship on printer paper look professional, we locked it up in the even more attractive envelope and traipsed back to the Vatican where we only had to show the letter to the Swiss Guards while explaining our entire (impossible) idea. No biggie.

All I can say is that, to our immense delight and surprise, the next day, after our return trip from Assisi, Sister Sweetheart was waiting for us at the door with a letter in hand.  The baffled expression on her face could only mean one thing: we had received a letter of response from the Vatican.

It is here that I must confess, once again, the help of a connection.  We may have gently implied in the letter of request that we were students of Dr. Regis Martin and Dr. Scott Hahn (two of our favorite professors) and graduates of Franciscan University, of which John Paul II was a big fan. And, it just so happened that Dr. Martin was also in Rome the same time we were.....and he, too, along with his family, was invited to join the Holy Father for the private audience. What Providence!

The day before our return trip back to the States, Steve and I found ourselves, once again, sitting on the steps of St. Peters anticipating an opportunity that we never dreamed in a million years would happen to us.  Patiently, yet nervously, we waited to be led into the Pope's private chambers.  I remember feeling so sheepish about our attire, as we only packed clothes for the tourist trek around Rome, not clothing fitting and proper for the meeting of the Shepherd of the Catholic Church.  Despite our supremely informal dress, it was obvious that the good Lord wanted us to be there, and that was enough to ease the embarrassment we felt standing amongst those donning dresses and suits and ties.
After being escorted into a large room we all found a spot at the room's perimeter and waited for the Holy Father to enter.  I remember the very moment he walked in, acknowledging all of us with a gentle nod and a joyful smile. If not for the pounding of our hearts, you could hear a pin drop.

One at a time, we approached the Pope, and as we bent down to greet him, he handed us a rosary and said, "Ah, the children from Franciscan University!"  We smiled in affirmation and very briefly shared with him how much we loved him and thanked him for leading the youth of the world to Christ....although I'm sure we sounded like babbling toddlers.

Being pregnant, there was just no holding back the tears of gratitude, elation and awe. That was the moment he reached out and touched my cheek with such endearing affection, I couldn't keep it together. Open wide the flood gates. The pretty cry was over.

Words cannot describe the eyes of this man - to look into them, the purest, brightest blue, was like looking directly into heaven.  Through one brief, yet tender gaze, he showed us heaven, he showed us Christ.  Holiness is powerful.  It isn't just possessed, it is transmitted, and we felt the holiness of our father deep in our souls, deep in our bones that day.

When we came to share with others the story of that particular event, I couldn't help but try my hardest to communicate the feelings we experienced during our encounters with the pope.  Not for superfluous reasons, but because I truly wanted people to know that the love they (and we) have for him is real.  It's a love not based on feelings of admiration, but on a deep desire and inspired passion for Christ.

The very roots of our faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that John Paul II challenges us to live and to love every day,  they are the very roots from which he himself lived, roots that anchored him in deep dedication to the shepherding of his flock.  They are roots that connect us to him in a sincerely tangible way, a way that is felt deeply across the span of time and space, even though many of us would never have the privilege of meeting him.
{One of our most favorite quotes from the Holy Father, 
the very one that inspires us every day in our vocation!}

I could go on and on about this man.  I could zealously encourage you to read this and that or copy a million quotes to this page, his thoughtful words that would leave you pondering for days, weeks, months, even years! But, I'll let the story end here.

If you don't know Pope John Paul II, it's not too late! Google that man, and let his story and his legacy spill over into your life - you'll be so happy you did!
Will you raise your glass with me on Sunday, Divine Mercy Sunday?  Let's toast this great champion of our faith and then never forget that he is ready and waiting to pray for us from heaven, to help us, as he helped us here on earth, to find our way to Christ, the way to heaven where we might one day meet him again!

St. Pope John Paul II the Great, pray for us!!


  1. What a beautiful story! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Loved loved loved reading this. Thank you for taking the time to share!

  3. Your beautiful story left me in tears.

  4. What a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing it with us.

  5. Thank you for sharing this story! It too brought a tear to my eye. What a blessing you would have missed out on if you had not ACTED, and written the letter. I look forward to learning more about this soon to be saint. You are still in my prayers especially regarding your pregnancy.

    1. Thank you for your prayers, Sara! I hope that the next time we are out in west we can connect. I would love to see you!!

  6. Wow. What an amazing, beautiful & blessed experience, Susan. Thank you for sharing your story!

  7. Oh wow. What a great story Susan! It's so amazing that he touched so many lives with his holiness. I'm sure you'll treasure those memories always.

  8. What a fantastic story, and pictures to prove it! (Not that I didn't believe you!) You are just so blessed to have had those experiences with our Holy Father, and I am 100% sure that his intercession contributed to your beautiful family. :) Can't wait for tomorrow!

    1. You know, I have often wondered if he's the reason we have all of these boys - surely one of them will become a priest!!

  9. What an amazing experience! Thank you for sharing your story with us!

  10. I had chills reading this! I was at WYD in Denver as well, and although I was little, I still felt the impact! Your experiences meeting him sound absolutely incredible!

  11. I loved reading your entire story (and, yes, I had a glass of wine!).
    Not being Catholic, I don't know St. John Paul II but I feel like I know at least a tiny bit now.

  12. Love this post! Love JPII, Love FUS, Love Dr. Regis Martin! So happy to have found your blog!

  13. What a beautiful story Susan...and to think he touched your cheek!

    I didn't know you were a Frannie... and Dr. Martin's oldest daughter is one of my best friends. Small world :)


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