Before her recent trip to Rome, Carolyn Romano prayed that she'd get a chance to meet the new pope. "I totally believe in the power of prayer," Romano said. "If your prayers are answered, you have to spend twice as much time in prayer of thanksgiving."
Romano and her friend, Kellie Pappas, did meet the pope, and came back to Alabama with his hat. Pope Francis gave Romano the zucchetto, or white silk skullcap, that he wore during his weekly Wednesday audience at St. Peter's Square on Oct. 23. Since then, she has been showing it to students at Catholic schools, telling them about her trip to Rome, and asking them to pray for the pope.
Romano and her husband, Frank; Pappas and her husband, Dennis; and their tour guide priest, the Rev. John McDonald, director of Christian education for the Catholic Diocese of Birmingham, traveled to Rome Oct. 18-26. They requested tickets in July for the Wednesday 10:30 a.m. weekly papal audience. About 92,000 other people requested tickets for the audience also. About 50,000 others jammed into St. Peter's Square without tickets, which are not required.
"They issue tickets just so there will be a little order," Romano said. The group's tickets called for two of them to be allowed into the section near to the stage, called the "Kiss the Hand" section. Carolyn and Kellie got those tickets. "We were in the front row, about eight feet from the stage," Romano said. "Frank, Dennis and Father John were 10 rows back."
Romano came prepared. Before the audience, she had gone into Gammarelli’s, tailor to the pope, and bought a papal zucchetto to give the pope as a gift if she met him. During the papal audience, Pope Francis read from the Bible about Mary, mother of Jesus, visiting Elizabeth, and gave a message to the faithful.
"It was all in Italian," Romano said. "We were just listening; we couldn't understand what he was saying," Pappas said. When the pope concluded, he walked down to meet the pilgrims.
He walked down the incline to greet all the handicapped," Romano said. "He made eye contact, talked to each and every one, and blessed them, and their caregivers. He just radiates God’s love and moves with great compassion to others. There were more than 100 handicapped people."
After that, he moved toward the rest of the crowd, and came to Romano and Pappas. "I said, 'You’re beautiful,'" Romano said. "He understood what I was saying. I shook his hand and I gave him the zucchetto. He took off his zucchetto and put mine inside it to see if it was the right size. Then he puts the one I gave him on top of his head. I reached up to hug him. He said, 'Pray for me.' It will be a memory that I will always cherish."
The pope then moved along the crowd. "He was not in a hurry," Pappas said. "It was a hot sunny day," Romano said. "He was out there for three hours." McDonald said that when Pope Francis got back to the popemobile, he slumped down from exhaustion. "He's a parish priest, just like us," said McDonald, who studied at the Pontifical North American College in Rome from 2003-2007 and read from the Bible at Pope John Paul II’s funeral in 2005.
McDonald said it was one of the largest crowds he'd ever seen for the weekly papal audience.
Despite only being in office since March, Pope Francis has achieved great popularity as a man of the people who cares about the poor. "He's speaking plainly about things that are relevant to people," McDonald said. "What he says resonates."
Romano recently spent the day at Our Lady of the Valley School, showing students the pope's hat and talking about meeting the pope and visiting the churches of Rome. "I feel like this was meant to be shared with others," Romano said. "The kids were so interested. I get school kids to pray for him. He is such a great leader, a peaceful, joyful leader."