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The Day I Accidentally Met Pope John Paul II



Zoe Romanowsky - published on 10/21/15

An answered prayer ends up being a much bigger grace

It was November 2000, and I was packing my bags for Italy. The trip was an answered prayer. I had wanted to make a pilgrimage for the Jubilee year but was in between jobs and had no money. I didn’t see a way for such a thing to happen.

Then my phone rang. It was a dear friend who, without really knowing this long-standing prayer of mine, wanted to buy me tickets to Rome.

Amazed by this, I told another close friend my news, and she decided to come along. The two of us had high hopes for the trip, and the big hope was mutual: to meet Pope John Paul II. His pontificate had shaped my faith in the years following my young-adult conversion, and like so many of my peers, I felt like he was my pope.

My traveling companion said she would try to get us a letter of recommendation from her archbishop for the Wednesday audience that we would be in Rome. (We also made plans to visit Assisi, Florence, San Giovanni Rotondo, and Positano.) She called me a couple of days before we were scheduled to leave.

“I’ve got good news and bad news,” she said. “The good news is, we got the letter for the audience. The bad news is, it’s for the wrong Wednesday.”

I was crushed but decided right then and there to believe I would still see the Holy Father. I entrusted my desire to God and asked for the Blessed Mother’s help. Then I grabbed my rosary and my vodka (otherwise known as my personal “flight plan”) and flew across the Atlantic for the first time.

Walking into St. Peters Square that first evening is forever seared in my mind. It was one of those gorgeous fall skies, where the light sprays a golden glow on everything it touches.

On our third day my friend and I rose early with the intention of finding the office that handles Wednesday audiences in hopes they may have pity on us and change the date of our audience. It seemed worth a try.

But first we decided to attend Mass in the undercroft of St. Peter’s, which was open to pilgrims during the Jubilee year. We stumbled upon a liturgy for Polish pilgrims at Our Lady of Częstochowa chapel. I knew John Paul II had a particular devotion to her, so before the Mass ended I gazed at the stunning icon and prayed, “Mary, I know you can do this; I know you can make it happen for us to meet the Holy Father.” For me this meant getting our audience changed and maybe even landing some terrific seats where we could see JPII up close, or even shake his hand.

It was a beautiful day. We made our way across St. Peter’s Square to a long line of pilgrims and finally arrived at a checkpoint. We showed our letter from my friend’s archbishop to a Swiss Guard and tried to explain what we were looking for. He pointed to another line and told us to go there, which we did. Soon we were waving our letter in front of another official who indicated we should join another line, and so it went until we found ourselves trailing behind a group who were on their way to the office we needed. Or so we thought.

After traipsing through a small outdoor courtyard and entering another building, everyone got very quiet. I looked around and began to feel nervous. This didn’t seem right. As the group of about 35 people ascended the stairs, I noticed a couple of Swiss Guards leading the way, along with a bishop and a couple of priests. It became increasingly clear to me that this group was a unit and we didn’t belong. And that’s about when I realized we were in the papal palace.

I gazed at the large paintings on the walls as I heard, in French, instructions to place our coats and purses on a bench. We then walked down a long corridor and were directed into a room where we stood in a semicircle, waiting … for what, I wasn’t sure. Maybe we had accidentally intruded on a French family’s private baptism? (There was a little baby and a few children among the group.) A kind of electricity was in the air. My heart was pounding. I wanted to bolt but didn’t dare. My friend and I kept looking at each other, but we stayed quiet, afraid of causing a scene or being discovered.

A woman turned to us and whispered, “Tu famille?” I know a little French but didn’t know what to say, so I smiled. A number of people were giving us inquisitive looks. Then, a priest came around the corner and indicated for all of us to enter the next room in an orderly line. I was about number nine, and when I rounded the corner, I could hardly believe my eyes: There was the Holy Father sitting in a chair. Two bishops flanked him; one was the pope’s personal secretary and the other, who knew the group, was introducing each guest by name and affiliation to the pope. I moved into full-blown panic. I think I whispered a prayer to St. Therese that went something like, Please please please don’t let me be kicked out in front of the pope!

It was my turn. The bishop looked at me. I could see him scrolling through his mental rolodex trying to place me. He frowned. The other one frowned. Neither looked a bit pleased.

And then in French, I heard, “Holy Father, I present to you … a girl.”

And then I did what I had seen everyone else do: I walked up to the Holy Father, knelt and took his hand. He was quite ill by then, his speech slow and a little slurred but understandable. He squeezed my hand as if he knew my secret, and then he said, “God love you,” or something like that.

I didn’t utter a word, too afraid that anything out of my mouth would deal the final blow and I’d be spending the rest of my trip in a Roman jail. So I just smiled as my mind exploded, and then I took my spot at the back of the small room with the others, watching the rest of the group take their turns.

My friend’s turn was immediately after mine, and she was introduced as “another girl.”

After everyone met the pope, someone presented him with a gift. The Holy Father greeted the group and spoke briefly in French. We laughed, we clapped, we all gathered around for a group photo. Somewhere in France today my friend and I are hanging on a wall and someone’s still asking, “Who are they?”

Eventually, we were escorted out of the building and found ourselves back in St. Peter’s Square. The sun was hot. We were thirsty. I needed more deodorant. We hardly knew what to do next. After you’ve accidentally found yourself in a private audience with the Holy Father, about all you can do is sit with the experience for a while. And eat gelato. Plenty of gelato.

Our pilgrimage trip had just begun, and I was already a different person. But it wasn’t the grace of meeting the Holy Father that had done it—as meaningful as that was. It was the experience of having my heartfelt prayer heard and answered. Something that seemed impossible wasn’t at all impossible for God. And Mary, well, she was still making things happen behind the scenes. I had chosen to trust and believe, like a child, and the Lord spoiled me.

Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Curator for Aleteia.

Pope John Paul IIVatican
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