Here's how we stumbled our way into this chance of a lifetime.
I was in Candida's class as a college sophomore, and on the first day, we all had to go around the room and give an interesting fact about ourselves. I'll never forget Candida's fun fact.
"I got married in England this summer," she said, "and the pope personally blessed my wedding."
Stop the presses. Was she serious?! I couldn't wait for class to be over to ask her a million questions.
Sure enough, she had met the pope (Benedict at the time) and she'd worn her pretty white wedding dress with all the other brides. She said, "Any Catholic newlyweds can do it!"
That was the first time I'd ever heard of the Sposi Novelli program. I vowed to do the same thing when I got married.
And five years later, I did.
The process to apply for Sposi Novelli tickets is astoundingly easy. All you have to do is get the priest who is celebrating your wedding Mass to write a letter to the Bishops' Office for United States Visitors to the Vatican, at the North American College in Rome. Once the tickets are secured, you just need your wedding dress (or a long white dress) and a copy of your marriage license to take to Rome. And you must go to Rome within two months of your wedding. This website has a lot more information, but really, it's that easy.
*Note* You must wear a wedding dress, or something that looks like a wedding dress, for your newlywed audience. You won't be allowed in without it! I brought my actual dress by rolling it up tightly in a suitcase and leaving the petticoat at home. It rolled up tiny and took up less space in my luggage than I expected. So I'm one of the few women lucky enough to wear my wedding dress twice. :)
Of course, the hardest part is affording honeymoon tickets to Rome! We were very lucky we were able to go, thanks to a generous wedding gift from some family members, and careful saving for some time in advance. I began planning this trip from the day we got engaged (ten months before the trip), so we were able to score relatively inexpensive airfare and lodgings. We deliberately chose a bed & breakfast that was walking distance from the Vatican, to make it easier to get to our papal audience.
Once we arrived in Rome, we went to the North American College on Tuesday evening to pick up our tickets. We had a wonderful time visiting the College. The nuns and seminarians who distribute the tickets are so sweet, the College has a peaceful interior garden, and we were able to go to Confession to the American priests there. We spent some time walking through the garden and talking to the nuns—it turned out we had a friend in common with one of them. What a beautifully small world.
But the next morning, the day of the weekly Wednesday audience, didn't go as planned. Frank's alarm clock didn't go off, so we woke up late! We still had time before the audience started, but we had wanted to be there right when the gates opened at 7:30 am. We got ready in a panic and I quickly threw my hair up into a bun instead of curling it in a pretty style as I had planned. We walked to the Vatican as fast as we could—what a sight I must have been, power-walking through the streets of Rome in my wedding dress!—and fortunately the security guards let us walk right up to the front when they saw my white dress.
All of the couples were seated up on stage, to the left side. Frank and I sat next to a sweet couple from the United Kingdom, Siobhan and Graeme, who were married the same day we were. There were couples there from all over the world—the Philippines, Spain, Poland—and we even met a guy who'd gone to Notre Dame too! He and his bride lived in Nebraska. There were about 25 or 30 couples in all.
We were about an hour early and the June sun was beating down pretty warmly. We were relieved when Pope Francis finally came out, to roars and acclaim from the crowd who overflowed St. Peter's Square. The week's Scripture was read, and the pope gave a beautiful reflection on it in Italian. I was able to understand about half of it (yay knowing Spanish!) and I translated what I could for Frank. Halfway through his sermon it began raining really hard. The Nebraskan girl lent Siobhan and me an extra umbrella, and we huddled under it together while getting pretty much soaked through. Then I was grateful that I'd woken up too late to curl my hair, because it would have been ruined!
The sun came back out and we began to dry off, just as the official part of the audience came to an end. All of us newlyweds were ushered out on stage. We formed two lines and waited for our turn to meet the Holy Father.
That turn was a long time in coming. Pope Francis is so friendly and welcoming that he took forever (in my opinion at the time) to individually greet all of the dignitaries and guests on stage. He said hello to athletes (we spotted Phil Rivers in the crowd), politicians, Catholic school groups... we waited and waited, while I nervously rehearsed what I was going to say. I had two goals in mind—to tell him that I love him, and that I'm praying for him. That was all I wanted to say. I had been warned in advance that Pope Francis doesn't speak any English, so I rehearsed how to say "I love you" and "I'm praying for you" in Spanish using the formal usted.
My original plan was to kneel down in front of the Holy Father when he came to us, as a sign of great reverence and respect for him, whom I love dearly as a father and honor as Christ's Vicar on earth. But Frank and I were pretty far back in line, and I saw other couples kneeling down only to have him pull them back up. He didn't want us to kneel to him, but rather wanted to talk to us face to face. So I honored that wish and didn't kneel when he approached us. I was so happy and excited, though, that my eyes welled up with tears and my heart was in my throat. I don't know how I managed to speak to him, with so much emotion in my heart, but somehow I did!
"Papa Francisco," I said as he approached us. That can mean either "Father Francis" or "Pope Francis," an ambiguity that perfectly suited this moment. I added in Spanish, "We love you so much!"
His eyes lit up to hear me speaking Spanish. I don't think most of the couples present spoke his native tongue.
"Where are you from?" he asked in Spanish, with the kindest smile I have ever seen.
I responded, "From the United States, but my family is Cuban." How grateful I am that I had the chance to mention my Cuban family. It made me feel as though they were with me in spirit.
He nodded and raised his hand to give us a blessing, but I wasn't done. Quickly I added, "We are praying for you!"
Frank likes to bring up that moment as the time I interrupted Pope Francis. Trust me to have too much to say, even when meeting the pope.
He paused and looked me in the eye. Slowly, he said, "Yes... please pray for me."
It was an incredibly moving moment. How he must rely on the prayers of the faithful in living out his difficult, challenging, and very public vocation.
I nodded and said, "Every day." Since then I've made sure to add, "God bless Pope Francis!" to my prayers throughout the day, and to remember him in a special way during Mass and my Morning Offering. I mean, when you promise the pope you'll pray for him every day, you gotta follow through!
After that he gave us his nuptial blessing and moved on to the next couple.
He is far and away the most Christ-like person I've ever met. Every word, every gesture, radiated profound love and inner peace.
Meeting the Holy Father was the most wonderful moment of my life after taking my wedding vows. Frank and I will cherish that memory forever. If you have a chance to do the Sposi Novelli program, I'd urge you to go for it!