By Katie Hyde
ROME — Sister Janel Olberding needed a sign.
Though life was exciting — she had just joined a religious order and moved to Rome — the transition to a new life was proving tough.
It was the day before her twentieth birthday, and nothing was familiar. The faces, the language, and the culture were all new.
She needed an affirmation that her decision to uproot her life from the small town of St. Benedict and replant herself in Rome was the right one.
Then she received the news that she had been chosen by her order, the Apostles of the Interior Life, to meet Pope John Paul II in his private library.
“Such an unexpected grace proved to me to be another of the many confirmations of my vocation,” said Sister Janel. “He was saying, ‘Yes, I am with you, keep going.’”
After meeting the pope, Sister Janel, her spirit reinvigorated, went on to study in Rome, take vows, and work with the Apostles in Rome as a spiritual director, evangelist, and formator.
Nine years later, Sister Janel was in need of another sign. Though she found life in Italy wonderful and exciting, there were many challenges. And she was flagging.
Again, said Sister Janel, God had perfect timing.
On May 18, in the middle of a meeting, Sister Janel’s cellphone vibrated. It was from an unsaved number. She almost didn’t answer. But something propelled her to press talk.
It was Father Marco of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization, inviting her to meet Pope Francis following Pentecost Mass.
A history of faith
The Apostles of Interior Life to which Sister Janel belongs began as a movement of women in 1990 under the direction of Father Salvatore Scorza in Rome. The movement was approved in 1996, and the men’s branch was officially founded in 2007. Both orders grew in the following years, expanding their operations beyond Rome’s borders and to the United States.
A strong lay movement also took root, particularly in the United States. The movement, called Collaborators of Your Joy, officially began in 2005. In 2009, a provincial house in Overland Park was established to assist the movement.
It was through her work with this movement as a coordinator that Sister Janel was invited to meet Pope Francis.
In celebration of the Year of Faith, Pope Francis invited members of various movements, associations, and lay associations within the church to make a pilgrimage to Rome for the weekend of Pentecost. This pilgrimage was also called for by Pope John Paul II in 1998 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.
The Collaborators of Your Joy was one of 150 movements to participate.
“Quite the adventure”
As Collaborators began arriving from all over Italy for the pilgrimage, preparations for the event were in full swing all over Rome.
The city expected 70,000 guests to soon be crowding the streets. Unfortunately, Vatican officials underestimated — by 50,000.
“It was quite the adventure,” said Sister Janel. “It was a pilgrimage in every sense of the word.”
St. Peter’s Square was packed. People squashed shoulder to shoulder, stood for hours in lines in the heat, walked on ancient, craggy cobblestones that blistered their feet.
But Sister Janel found it amazing.
“It is always inspiring to see how the Holy Spirit inspires different people to bring out the Gospel,” she said. “It is very edifying to see the sheer number of people. And then getting to know them was enriching.”
After standing in the hot Italian sun for hours, Sister Janel was able to sit up front near the pope as he spoke to the crowd. He discussed his faith life, the challenges of evangelization, poverty, and the persecution of Christians across the globe.
And the Holy Father made one small request.
“I would like to take the opportunity now to make a small, but fraternal, reproach, among ourselves, all right?” asked Pope Francis. “All of you in the square shouted out: ‘Francis, Francis, Pope Francis.’
“But, where was Jesus? I want to hear you shout out: ‘Jesus, Jesus is Lord, and he is in our midst.’ From now on, no more ‘Francis’, only ‘Jesus.’ All right?”
From that point on, the thousands gathered shouted, “Jesus!”
The following morning, Sister Janel returned to St. Peter’s with members of the Collaborators of Your Joy for Mass. Sister Janel was invited to sit in the front row as Pope Francis and over 200 other priests celebrated Mass.
“In nine years of living in Rome, I’ve participated in many Masses at St. Peter’s,” said Sister Janel. “I’m used to being squished in the square. This time I had a front-row seat and even a kneeler!”
“It was very prayerful and powerful to feel the pope so close,” she continued. “It was very easy to spend the Mass in prayer.”
Following Mass, Sister Janel, along with 25 representatives from other church movements, lined up behind the altar of St. Peter’s to perform the “baciamano,” or the kiss of the hand of the pope.
Sister Janel was introduced by name to the pope, kissed his hand, and spoke to him of her work in Italy and of the Collaborators of Your Joy.
“He was really fatherly,” said Sister Janel. “He held my hand the entire time. Though he had said Mass for two hours in the heat, he didn’t let go. He listened, nodded, and smiled.”
And though the meeting with Pope Francis lasted less than two minutes, Sister Janel believes the grace of the moment lasted much longer.
“The events communicated something bigger than the person,” she said. “The grace lasted longer than 30 seconds. It was God saying, ‘Yes, you are going in the right direction.’”
“It was a manifestation of God’s love for me,” she continued. “It was a very strong reminder of his presence in my life.”