March 7, 2014

St. Anne parishioners savor conversation with Holy Father during papal audience

Pope Francis takes time to talk with Mary Kubala, seated, and Vicki Stark after the two members of St. Anne Parish in New Castle attended an audience with the pope last fall in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Photo by Fotografia Felici Roma)

Pope Francis takes time to talk with Mary Kubala, seated, and Vicki Stark after the two members of St. Anne Parish in New Castle attended an audience with the pope last fall in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. (Photo by Fotografia Felici Roma)

(Editor’s note: On March 13, the Church marks the one-year anniversary of the election of Pope Francis as universal shepherd. See our related story on the impact Pope Francis has had on readers.)

By John Shaughnessy

The joy radiates as Mary Kubala and Vicki Stark recall the moment when Pope Francis stopped to talk with them and bless them during their visit to the Vatican.

The two members of St. Anne Parish in New Castle still picture the pope’s smile.

They still savor the moment when he let Kubala reach up and touch him.

They still remember the words he shared with them.

It all happened unexpectedly during their guided tour of Italy last fall.

The tour didn’t include a visit to the Vatican, but Kubala told Stark that there was no way she was “going that far and not try to see Pope Francis because he’s amazing.” So Kubala arranged, before the trip, to line up two of the several thousand tickets for a papal audience on Nov. 6.

Then as the tour led them to Tuscany, Kubala told the guide that she and Stark were leaving the group for a day to take the train to Rome to see the pope. On the train ride, the 65-year-old Kubala allowed herself to dream.

“I told Vicki on the train, ‘If I get to see him, I’m going to ask him not to change—because he’s doing everything right.’ ”

The two friends have appreciated the tone and the witness of Pope Francis, who will mark his first anniversary of his election as pope on March 13. They celebrate his emphasis and his example to people to love God and love one another. They rejoice in the way he reaches out to the poor, the disabled and children. They love how he focuses on the bonds that connect people instead of the issues that divide them.

“I think he’s an amazing person and a very holy man,” says Stark, who is 69. “There’s just an inner happiness about him.”

Kubala adds, “And he’s a really humble person.”

Kubala has experienced her own humility in her struggles with pain and injury to both knees. She had her left knee replaced and her right knee—“it doesn’t have any cartilage in it”—was so painful that she relied upon a walker to get around Italy.

Yet the walker allowed Kubala and Stark to enter the handicap section during the audience with the pope. The friends were in awe of the love that the crowd poured upon Pope Francis as he spoke that day. They were stunned when he approached the handicap area, started interacting with people and stopped in front of Stark and Kubala, who was sitting on her walker that has a seat.

“He talked with us for several minutes, and there were so many people there,” Kubala says. “He takes time with people.”

During their conversation, the two friends made one request to Pope Francis: They asked him not to change.

The pope smiled and said in halting English, “I no change, but you must pray for me.”

Kubala recalls what happened next: “I reached up and blessed him on his forehead. He let me touch him. It was amazing.”

During their time together, Pope Francis also held Kubala’s right hand as he blessed her.

“The interesting thing is that once he blessed me, my right knee hasn’t hurt since, and it was so painful,” Kubala says. “I told my doctor, ‘It’s either the medicine you’re giving me or the pope. My doctor said, ‘I’m a believer.’ ”

In the months since their meeting with Pope Francis, the two friends have continued to pray for him. The two, members of their church choir, also have continued to appreciate the impact he has had on the Church and their lives.

“I just feel very light and hopeful,” Stark says. “I’ve always been pretty good about going to church, but I’ve gotten more involved. I’m a cantor, a beginning one, even though I’m almost 70. Mary told me, ‘The songs and the psalms you sing need to be imparted to the congregation with emotion and expression, not just the right notes.’ I’ve been working on that since I met Pope Francis.”

Kubala says her faith has always been strong. She wears a ring with a cross on it, a ring inscribed with the words, “With God, all things are possible.”

She now has one more example of those possibilities from her meeting with Pope Francis.

“When something like this happens, you feel like you belong, that you’re loved, that you’re really a part of the Church,” she says. “I think he cared about every single person he touched.

“I think he’s the best thing for the Church in a long time.” †

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