Monday, September 22, 2014

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'Family Reunion': Pilgrims get close to Holy Father at general audience

051412-pilgrims-audience-briceVATICAN CITY — When you travel 5,000 miles to Rome and you know you may only have one chance to get close to the Holy Father, you do whatever you can to make it happen.

So when we ad limina pilgrims learned we would get special reserved general seating near Pope Benedict XVI during his general audience in St. Peter's Square on May 9, we strategized ways to outmuscle and outwit people.

Several of our pilgrims from the Charlotte and Atlanta dioceses got up early to head to St. Peter's Square to stand in line at the entrance gates, so they could make a beeline for the seating area to get the best seats possible.

Boy, did their efforts pay off!

They were there early enough to secure the front two rows in the reserved seating area, allowing for a close-up view of the Holy Father.

The rest of us arrived at 8:15 a.m., just as the gates were getting ready to open. We joined in the joyful stampede to the seating area, laughing as we flew across the cobblestones with our "golden tickets" in hand.

Pictured: Pilgrims meet with a bishop before the General Audience. (Photo by SueAnn Howell)

What a pleasant surprise we had when we saw how close we would be to our "Papa" in a matter of hours. The sun, the heat, the crowds – none of it mattered as we anxiously awaited the "popemobile."

We applied sunscreen, took pictures of each other and of the crowds as they filled the square, and we also snapped a few pictures of the bishops and cardinals from around the world who filed in and sat in front of us.

And then, at 10:45 a.m., we heard the crowds begin to cheer and the "popemobile" came into view and we got a glimpse of Pope Benedict XVI, looking resplendent all in white with his signature white hair and red shoes.

Cheers of "Papa!" rang out as he made his way through the crowds and then up the ramp close to where we were seated, where he would give his address.

We listened intently as he gave his reflection, and even though it was in Italian, just hearing his voice was comforting and exciting all at the same time. Then, when he started greeting pilgrims from various places around the world, we stood up and gave a resounding cheer when he announced both the Archdiocese of Atlanta and the Diocese of Charlotte. (See video here.)

I screamed out, "We love you, Holy Father! We love you!"

Our American flag was draped over the wall in front of us, so between that and our vociferous reaction to his words, you knew he saw us – his Catholic American children – and he gave us a big smile.

And as if that wasn't enough grace for one day, he also came right past us in the open-air "popemobile" – within an arm's length – as he left the general audience.

We each had the opportunity to look him in the eyes - those wise, loving, blue eyes – as he slowly made his way past us. Some of us cried, some yelled "Papa," one of our pro-life doctors said, "Marriage is still sacred in North Carolina!" as we had received news of the passing of the marriage amendment in our state.

I held up a copy of the Catholic News Herald for him to see, grinning from ear to ear, barely able to contain the joy in showing him the fruits of our labors in the vineyard of the New Evangelization of which he often speaks.

It was an emotional moment for all of us, well worth the sunburn and lost sleep... A family reunion we will never forget.

— SueAnn Howell, staff writer