You can rehearse your lines, but pope’s blessing creates a fog
When we learned during a speech at one of our marriage preparation classes that newlywed Catholic couples (“sposi novelli” in Italian) can meet the pope and receive a nuptial blessing, my fiancé Sohan quickly doodled a note on our pre-Cana booklets: “New York > India > Rome.”
I had vaguely remembered that this was something the pope did on a regular basis. However, I assumed it would take a lot of planning and that only a select number of Catholic couples would get to take advantage of this opportunity.
To our surprise, the process was very straightforward. We simply emailed the Bishops’ Office for United States Visitors to the Vatican, headquartered at the Pontifical North American College, (https://www.pnac.org/visitorsoffice/about-the-visitors-office/) to inquire about tickets.
We began corresponding with a cheerful Sister of Mercy who staffed the office.
The only difficulty we faced is that the Vatican knows only about two months in advance whether the pope actually will have his general audience on the week we intended to travel.
We had booked our tickets for our February wedding reception in India – my husband’s family lives in Pune and Mumbai – hoping that Pope Francis would hold his audience during our time in Rome.
When we checked back in with the office in December, it was confirmed that, indeed, Francis would be holding his audience on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Relieved that we had chosen the right travel dates (Francis was in Mexico the week prior!), we prepared for our trip, wedding dress in tow. Because a change to our connecting flight meant that we would not arrive in Rome with time to pick up the tickets the Tuesday afternoon before the audience, the office informed us that the concierge at our hotel could pick them up.
We sent multiple coordinating emails to the concierge and couldn’t relax until we saw the envelope with the tickets. Thankfully, they were waiting for us in our hotel room!
Cobblestones and heels!
The next morning we dressed in our wedding attire and made our way to St. Peter’s Square. It’s probably not the best idea to wear fancy heels, but I brought a pair of flats to change into later.
We arrived later than we should have (around 9 a.m.), but the Swiss Guards let us right through the crowds to the side of the stage where Pope Francis was sitting.
Another gentleman directed us to our seats, which were to the left and slightly behind Francis.
For the month of February, which is one of the city’s rainiest months, it was singularly beautiful – not a cloud in the sky! We listened to Francis’ meditation on the Scripture passage from Isaiah, and waited for the English synopsis. It was a remarkable experience of our universal church in action, with orators translating Pope Francis’ words into at least 10 different languages.
It was also a surreal experience to be up on the stage and look out at the thousands of people in the crowd below.
A soccer hero stirs crowd
As we were getting in line to greet the Holy Father, Sohan spotted a soccer legend from his childhood, the great Ronaldo of Brazil. (Sohan tells me he only needs one name!)
Apparently, others noticed Ronaldo, too, as he was asked to hold someone’s baby. We didn’t see his interaction with Pope Francis but have a feeling it was a warm exchange. The pope is a huge soccer fan from his time living in Argentina.
After this exciting distraction, we turned our focus back to the real reason we had come all this way – to have a face-to-face exchange with Pope Francis, whom Sohan and I both love and respect very much.
The Vatican staff directed us where to stand and reminded us of the big no-no’s: “No autographs and NO SELFIES.”
As we waited, we saw a flock of cardinals file out from the stage. Many of them waved and smiled; some shouted out where they were from.
We saw the cardinals from India and Pakistan, which was a treat.
We were the second couple in line to greet the pope, and as Pope Francis slowly made his way toward us, we got more excited and more nervous.
What do you even say to the pope?
Preps went out the window
We had practiced a few lines during the cab ride, but all of our rehearsed lines left us when he was suddenly standing in front of us.
Pope Francis could sense we were dumbfounded and graciously broke the ice.
“Pray for me!” he said.
We shook our heads in the affirmative. He held both of our hands, and I thanked him for being such a great example to us as servants of Christ.
He smiled and said “God bless you,” and said a blessing over us.
He then moved on to the next couple, but we will carry that moment with us forever.
Treasured photo memories
A photographer from L’Osservatore Romano snapped dozens of pictures of our special moment. After our time with the pope was over, we were directed to walk into St. Peter’s Basilica, where we walked through the Jubilee Door of Mercy and said some prayers.
After sending postcards from the Vatican post office, we made our way back to the hotel, feeling so full of joy and grace. It was a great start to our honeymoon, and the best possible start to our journey of marriage together.
Rebecca Finney Fernandes, a graduate of St. Mary’s Dominican High School, and her husband Sohan live in New York.