Two American families have much to be thankful for after encounters with Francis
Last Thanksgivng Joe and Kristen Masciantonio of Philadelphia were thinking it might be their last holiday with their newborn, Gianna. This year they are grateful for every day with her and cautiously optimistic.
Gianna, who had just passed her first birthday when Pope Francis came to the US in September, had an inoperable brain tumor. On the day the pope was to speak at Independence Hall, a family friend in the FBI invited the Masciantonios to bring the girl to a special area where the pope would be passing by in his popemobile. The family was able to hand Gianna over to a security guard, who presented her to Francis. The pontiff kissed her on the head, near where her tumor was.
Doctors can now barely see anything of the tumor on MRIs. Still, Joe Masciantonio is cautious about declaring it a miracle.
“We have a really deep faith, but the pope doesn’t perform miracles; God performs miracles,” he said in an interview. “The pope is a vessel for God and a spiritual messenger for us, and more people should listen to him because he’s a pretty inspiring guy.”
Masciantonio said his daughter’s tumor was already shrinking, “but what they can’t explain is the massive shrinkage compared to what we saw with the six rounds [of chemotherapy] prior,” he said. “This was unprecedented. … They were absolutely surprised.”
Asked to comment on the case, Legion of Christ Father Pedro Barrajon, a professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical Atheneum Regina Apostolorum in Rome, said, “If you were to ask me, ‘Is it possible?’ I would respond: Yes, it is possible.”
“First, it is possible through the power of Jesus to heal,” said Father Barrajon, who serves as the main organizer of the annual course on exorcism sponsored by the Congregation for the Clergy. “Second, because of the faith of the mother, and even of the little baby [if she is baptized]. In the Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles, where we hear of the Lord healing through St. Peter, we see that faith counts. ‘Go, your faith has healed you,’ Jesus often says to those whom he has healed.”
For the Masciantonios, the miracles are the people that God has put in their lives along the way. But there were a number of coincidences that have been tantalizing nonetheless. Their daughter is named for St. Gianna Molla, an Italian doctor who heroically opted for a medical treatment for cancer that would preserve her unborn daughter’s life even though it ultimately did not save her own. Shortly after little Gianna’s condition was first diagnosed, Kristen Masciantonio had a dream that her newborn girl was standing with St. Gianna and Pope Francis. A couple weeks later St. Gianna was named a patron saint of the World Meeting of Families that would take place this year in their hometown of Philadelphia. The Masciantonios have since met with St. Gianna’s daughter, Gianna Emanuela Molla.
Father Barrajon said that the dream suggests some supernatural intervention. “In my own work and experience, I have seen it happen that people dream of a healing, or a conversion, even their own,” he said. “Certainly the healing of the baby in this particular case needs to be confirmed, but yes, it is possible. This can be the work of God.”
Another detail that looms large in the Masciantonios’ thinking is that Gianna’s older brother’s name is Dominic. The man who grabbed little Gianna from the Masciantonios and held her up to Pope Francis in the popemobile is a familiar face to people watching the pope’s public appearances. But not many people know the name of this bald gentleman who serves as Francis’ bodyguard.
It’s Domenico Giani, whose name is extremely similar to the Masciantonios’ children’s names.
Another baby Giani held up was Ave Cassidy, who got a papal kiss in April 2014 in St. Peter’s Square. But Ave got more than a kiss.
“We knew of a hole in her heart before she was born,” said her mother, Lynn Cassidy, of Phoenix, Arizona. “After, we found another—which was undetectable when I was pregnant with her.”
The cardiac holes are a not uncommon symptom in children born with Down syndrome, which is Ave’s condition. She has also had problems with vision, hearing, speech and mobility.
But by the time the Cassidys were to make a family pilgrimage to Rome for the canonization of Popes John Paul II and Paul VI, Ave’s cardiologist cleared the girl for travel.
“The Wednesday before the canonization we stood in line at 6 a.m. in the rain,” Cassidy recalled. “Three and a half hours later we were waiting for him to come through the square.”
The family was at the barricade where the pontiff would drive by in the popemobile. By the time he came through, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining.
“My husband, Scott, held up Ave, and Giani took her and held her up to the pope. He kissed her and blessed her. We have a picture of him with his hand on her heart. He proceeded to ask my husband, ‘What is her name and how old is she?’”
When the family got home in May, they took Ave to the cardiologist. “The first hole, which we had seen in utero, was closed, and the second was half the size,” Lynn Cassidy said. “She was still asymptomatic, so we don’t need to go back til January.”
Was it a miracle?
“We really believe in God’s grace through the servant of God that the pope is,” Cassidy said, “and we really feel like it was a miracle. … Medically, could the holes close on their own? Yes, of course they could, but … the doctors were surprised that the hole had closed.”
Ave, who will be two in January, likes playing and talking to herself in the mirror, playing with and talking to her toys, her mom said. She’s blithely unaware of all the media attention and the fact that her parents are documenting her case.
“Many priests have told us to have this story documented because if [Pope Francis] is up for canonization one day they might call us and ask us to tell the story,” Cassidy said.
She explained that her daughter is named with the initials of her maternal and paternal grandmothers, as well as the first letter of her own maiden name.
“We are very devoted to Mary,” she said. “We also thought she’d only have one choice for a confirmation name—Maria.”
Said Joe Masciantonio, “Through all of this we always prayed and believed that God could change anything. We always say that our whole life is a miracle. The pope’s kiss is just another in a long line of blessings from God, and it’s a testimony to all the prayer that everyone has said for us and that we have said, and it’s just a testimony of how good God is.”
John Burger is news editor, and Diane Montagna is Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.
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