They may be "crazy," but it's a good kind of crazy
Those were among Pope Francis’ first words to the Walker family when he met them in Philadelphia last weekend. But they were words of admiration and welcome, delivered with a laugh. The Holy Father himself had requested the meeting with Catire and Noelle Walker and their four young children, after learning about their journey from Buenos Aires to Philadelphia in a Volkswagen Kombi. For the Walkers, it was like meeting a friend.
“He was how we imagined him to be,” says Noelle, when asked whether anything surprised her about the pope. “He’s so authentic, so genuine… very affectionate, funny, and close to people. He was joking; it was like talking to a friend.”
The day before the surprise meeting, the Walkers were at Independence Hall when the papal motorcade went by. They screamed his Spanish name, and the children were hopeful he would take a letter they had prepared for him. But Francis passed by and they were disappointed. When the phone rang at 6:00 a.m. the next morning, however, with an invitation to come immediately to Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary to meet the pontiff, the children jumped with excitement.
“They’ve known about the pope since we left, so they were very excited,” says Noelle. “We do ‘group hugs’ in our family, so we did one with the pope. The kids kept hugging him the whole time, not at all following protocol. He was so grandfatherly.”
Noelle says the Holy Father asked about their trip and told them he had been following their story (which they’ve documented on their blog and on Facebook). He told others in the room that it was important that a young family had the courage “to go out and live with joy, and to encounter other families” in the way they have over the course of their long road trip. And, as he has done with others he’s met, the pope asked for their prayers.
“He said it was because he’s in a difficult position, and can do lots of good, but also evil, and really needs our prayers,” says Noelle.
As fellow South Americans and as Spanish speakers, the Walkers have found in Pope Francis a pontiff that speaks to them. They’re attracted to his style and feel that he understands what families face every day.
“He’s down to earth, we understand what he’s saying, we identify with his messages,” Noelle says. “He’s focused on small gestures of every day life, and these are things we can understand and put into practice. It’s simple — but not simplistic.”
Although meeting the pope was “the best ending” to their journey, for the Walkers, the highlight has been the journey itself. For the past six months, traveling across 13 different countries, they’ve encountered many amazing people, and have learned to travel light, live in the moment, and know each other on a deeper level. In fact, even with hardships like the van breaking down and sometimes not having a place to sleep for the night, the Walkers say the trip itself has been easier than they expected. The tougher part was deciding to do it in the first place.
“Making the decision was the hardest part,” says Nicole. “We thought a lot about it, we weren’t sure. Then we finally decided to do it. We quit our jobs and sold everything. Once we actually decided, everything flowed.”
When the Walkers eventually arrived in Philadelphia, they found themselves surrounded by families and individuals from all over the world, people just like them who want to understand their faith better and reflect on what it means to be a family. Noelle describes it as “beautiful,” and says that for them, family and faith are intermingled together.
“We live it through our family, we don’t belong to any movement, but we live it as we feel it, as we experience it, and we couldn’t imagine our family life without the faith — it is threaded in.”
As for what’s next for the Walkers, they are currently in New York and will make their way to Miami in November to fly back to Buenos Aires and resume their lives.
“We did this as a special trip, as a gift. We’ll go back to our city and reflect on our priorities, with a new perspective and a different energy, to share what we have learned, and to continue living our life with happiness and gratitude,” says Noelle. “We’re starting over in many ways, and we will need to make decisions, but we’ve always had a sense of adventure — it’s part of us— so I’m sure this won’t be the end of that.”
Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Content Producer for Aleteia