A Personal Reflection: Austinite recounts blessings of trip to Rome

By Ana-Cristina González

Guest Columnist

What began as a trip with a group of friends, quickly turned into the trip of a lifetime that was filled with too many blessings to count!

Our trip planning began in August 2011 when a group of us met for Mass and then lunch in the Sacred Heart Parish youth house in Hallettsville. We drove from Austin, Round Rock and Houston to visit. We’ve been friends for more than a decade, since our college days at the University of Texas in Austin. We’ve grown up together –– witnessed each other’s conversions, ordinations, weddings, baptisms of children, deaths of parents, job changes, health scares … we’ve walked through it all together. Though we are miles apart, we try to get together at least once a year.

That afternoon in the midst of fried chicken, kolaches, laughter and good conversation, we dreamed of taking a trip to Rome. "Let’s do this," someone challenged. The group laughed and said there was no way we could coordinate so many calendars. However, I knew that if the priests (Father Tommy Chen associate pastor of Sacred Heart Parish in Hallettsville in the Diocese of Victoria and Father Jonathan Raia, associate pastor of St. William Parish in Round Rock) could narrow down a date, the rest would be easy. That day the priests narrowed down two weeks in March 2013 in which we would be able to travel to Rome.

The rest was simple: we met again to solidify dates and our itinerary in May 2012, booked plane tickets in December 2012, reserved the hotel in Assisi and apartment in Rome in January 2013, and settled on all that we wanted to accomplish while we were there. Ten people committed to going on the trip and we were so excited … until Feb. 11 when Pope Benedict XVI announced he would resign effective Feb. 28. I was so upset … who goes to Rome when there is no Pope? Little did I know what was in store for us!

We arrived in Rome on March 5 and headed straight to Assisi by train. When we arrived, we commented on how beautiful and peaceful it felt. After more than 14 hours of traveling, we needed peaceful. We stayed in Assisi for two days; we celebrated Mass and explored. We walked from church to church, basilica to basilica, trying to take in all the history and beauty. Stops were made for delicious food, shopping, and of course, gelato. All too soon, we found ourselves back on the train to Rome.

Rome is not so peaceful! It is loud, busy, full of activity and exciting. There was a definite buzz in the air as the conclave of cardinals prepared to meet. We toured the beautiful basilicas, churches and fountains; we connected with Austin friends who were in Rome. One night we had dinner with Msgr. David Jaeger, who worked in Austin for several years and now serves on the Roma Rota. We also visited with Sean DeWitt and Greg Gerhart, diocesan seminarians who are studying at the North American College. Father Jonathan and Father Tommy also met Father Mark Mary from EWTN’s "Life on the Rock." They concelebrated our daily Mass at the tomb of Blessed John Paul II. The blessings and treats we received during this trip were amazing, but the best was yet to come!

Our last day in Rome was March 13. Our group split into two. I was in the group who went to Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica. My goal was to be as close to the square as possible throughout the day, so I could see smoke coming from the chimney. After Mass we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with many cups of coffee. We talked for hours about the "front runners" for pope, which led to another discussion about the type of leader the church needed, which led to issues facing the church today. Soon we realized we needed to get to the square to see the outcome of the first vote of the day. As we were walking out, we saw large crowds leaving the square, which meant we had missed the smoke. But, it was black smoke, so we weren’t too disappointed.

After lunch, two friends and I decided we were going to be at St. Peter’s Square for the vote that evening no matter what. Our plan was to hang out at the Piazza Navona until it was time to return to St. Peter’s. We passed the time by shopping and drinking more coffee. At 4:30 p.m., we walked back to St. Peter’s. Throughout the trip we could feel this buzz of excitement and expectation, but that day was different.

We got through security relatively easy and made our way to a spot where the chimney was in full view. All around the square big screens were set up, all eyes were on that chimney. The weather in Rome that day was especially wet. It had rained every day we were there, but that day we had no relief from it. The rain slowed some, but never stopped. And it was cold. By the time we reached the square, we were drenched. But there we stood, wet and staring at the chimney.

About an hour and a half later, we were getting discouraged by the rain and long delay, so we decided to move towards one of the screens and I was going to sneak out to the restroom. We decided on a meeting place, and I rushed to a café. As I was walking back, the guards would not let me in the way I exited and were pointing me all the way back to the top of the square. I was nervous because there was no way I would find my friends if I had to go all the way around. It was at that moment that I heard the crowd gasp.

Smoke was coming out! At first it looked black, and there were sighs of discouragement, but they quickly turned to loud cheers, when we realized the smoke was white. Then the bells began to ring, oh the beautiful bells, that let us know we had a pope. I was still outside the barriers at this point, but my guardian angel, in the form of a rebellious man, jumped the barricade and I followed. I found my friend Tina standing in front of the screen, tears streaming down her face smiling. Habemus Papam! Our other friend, Renato, found us and we began running toward the front of the square.

We were near the front left side immediately in front of the statue of St. Peter. Our focus shifted from staring at the chimney, to staring at the balcony waiting for our new pope. The Swiss Guards marched out followed by two marching bands. Then we began to see curtains shuffle. The crowd cheered, but nothing. Lights began to turn on, still nothing. Then the curtains began to move more and the door opened. Cardinal Tauran announced what we had been waiting hours (and days) to hear, "Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
Habemus Papam."

The crowd went crazy, but quieted quickly to hear the name. All we could catch was Bergoglio and the name Francesco. Standing nearby were a group of young Franciscan seminarians that immediately erupted into cheers and began jumping up and down chanting "Francesco! Francesco!" I began asking, "Is he Italian? That’s an Italian last name." Someone nearby answered saying he was from South America and then another person said he was from Buenos Aires. I could hardly believe that the church now had its first pope from the Americas!

A few moments later, Pope Francis walked onto the balcony. He stopped to look out at us for a while before he said anything. I’ve read many opinions on how he looked or why he did that, but it felt to me that he was taking it all in. I didn’t see fear, I didn’t see timidity; I saw a man (perhaps with a little shyness); I saw our shepherd looking at his flock. And then his first words, "Buona Sera." The crowd erupted with cheers again.

As he continued to speak, the crowd hung on his every word. I don’t speak Italian, but I speak Spanish, which helped me understand most of what he said. It was so powerful to hear such a big crowd praying together for Benedict XVI by reciting the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. Pope Francis talked about the journey of love and trust we are taking together with him. People would cheer sporadically during his speech, but when he asked for us to pray for him, silence immediately fell over the crowd. More than 100,000 people were in the square that day and it was one of the most intense, powerful, moments of prayer that I have ever experienced. Heads were bowed, hands were raised, and all were silent. Amazing doesn’t even begin to describe it!

Pope Francis then bestowed his first papal blessing on all of those present, watching on television, and listening on the radio. In that moment, I began to grasp the idea of the universal church. We were connected, no matter if we were in St. Peter’s Square, at home 3,000 miles away, listening on the radio, or watching on television. We were all together in that moment receiving a blessing from our pope. We were miles apart, but connected in that moment.

I felt renewed, hopeful and excited. We left St. Peter’s that night for the last time in complete and utter awe of what we had just witnessed and what we had been a part of during those 10 days. The 10 of us went out for our last meal in Rome and we celebrated our new shepherd. And we celebrated and gave thanks for the many blessings that God had bestowed upon us throughout our time in Italy. Viva il Papa!!

Ana-Cristina González is the director of Stewardship and Development at St. William Parish in Round Rock. She is a parishioner of St. Mary Cathedral, graduate of The University of Texas of Austin and Gonzaga University. Most importantly she is the aunt of the best niece in the world.

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