by Jessica Langdon
ROME — When St. Thomas Aquinas seniors Kelsey Boschert and Virginia Bono were able to make it — quite by accident — to the inaugural Mass of Pope Francis on March 19, they could hardly believe their luck.
But it was just about to get better.
Passed a baby to hold out for a blessing from the new pope, the two girls were shocked to quickly find themselves face-to-face with the new leader of over a billion Catholics.
“He stopped the car in order to get out and bless the child,” said Father Andrew Strobl, Aquinas chaplain and associate pastor at Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe, who accompanied the school group on the pilgrimage.
Now no amount of planning could have predicted that opportunity. But even the inaugural Mass was an unexpected blessing.
Aquinas’ Italy trip was in the works long before Pope Benedict XVI announced his plans to resign at the end of February, leaving the seat vacant until cardinals elected Pope Francis on March 13.
“We didn’t plan this,” senior Andrew Walberg said. “Some would say it was by chance that we’d be here at this time. However, it feels like God wanted us to be here.”
“It’s not often that you actually do something that is quite possibly once-in-a-lifetime,” agreed senior Alexis Leikam.
The Aquinas group, which included 31 seniors and 10 adults, flew out of Kansas City on March 15 and had initially hoped to attend the pope’s first Wednesday audience on March 20. When they learned there would be no audience that day, they mapped out plans to attend the Mass instead.
It meant a 3 a.m. wake-up call the morning of the Mass so as to reach St. Peter’s Basilica early enough to secure a good spot for the Mass five or so hours later.
But what a spot it was.
“I told our students that if going to the installation Mass is worth doing, it’s worth doing right,” said Father Strobl.
“One of our chaperones asked how many of our students planned on standing in line for tickets to a sporting event in college,” he continued. “Hands shot up. If we would do that, this is a no-brainer.”
“I’ve never been so excited to get up at 3 a.m.” Kelsey said. “It’s amazing to be able to experience something that is bigger than yourself. This is big for over a billion people!”
Father Strobl believed this trip — and its timing — would immerse students in the true meaning of the universal church, and they took that message to heart.
“Going to this Mass,“ said senior Anastasia Quigley, “is being able to experience the faith I live at home in a worldwide way.”
“We have the opportunity to get beyond ourselves and join something with a worldwide focus,” senior Hunter Swanson agreed.
The students and chaperones spent their first day in Italy exploring Assisi, where they prayed for Pope Francis at the tombs of St. Francis and St. Clare.
“It was a humbling experience to pray together for Pope Francis in [the Basilica of] St. Francis of Assisi,” said Father Strobl. “For most everyone on the pilgrimage, the first time they heard the new Holy Father’s name in the eucharistic prayer at Mass was during our celebration in Assisi.”
He looked forward to hearing about future visits by Pope Francis to Assisi.
“There was an incredible energy in Assisi. You can just breathe in holiness,” Father Strobl said. “It was especially moving seeing the papal chair in St. Francis Basilica. “Above the chair, there was a bare nail awaiting the papal coat of arms of the first Pope Francis.”
The group was scheduled to return to Kansas on March 22. Though the trip will end, the experience will last a lifetime.
“I want to be able to tell my children about the pope’s installation Mass someday,” said senior Katie Rogler.