by Marc and Julie Anderson
ROME — Awe-inspiring. Humbling.
That’s how two newlywed couples from the archdiocese described meeting the pope this past fall.
Although Michael and Laura Starling, members of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, met in 2020, their journey to Rome began years ago.
Laura had known at least one couple who had met the pope by donning wedding (or similar) attire and sitting in a special section for newlyweds known in Italian as “sposi novelli” during one of the pope’s Wednesday general audiences. The pope blesses the couples, sometimes even greeting a few select ones.
The memory resurfaced last spring as the couple planned their wedding and honeymoon.
“Both of us brought up that we had an interest in meeting the pope,” Laura said.
It was probably the only time in their lives, said Michael, they would have a good chance at meeting any pope, and the couple picked Italy as their travel destination specifically because of the “sposi novelli” opportunity.
Even though they applied for the special seating and made the necessary travel arrangements, the Starlings knew they were no guarantees they’d actually meet the pope. Still, they would see him.
Packing Laura’s wedding gown, though, was a different story since they planned to use backpacks instead of suitcases. Besides touring Rome, their itinerary included skiing and visiting other cities. Laura used a vacuum sealer to compress her wedding gown to fit inside her backpack.
On Oct. 12, four days after getting married, the newlyweds found themselves in St. Peter’s Square, waiting with perhaps 50 couples from places as diverse as Brazil, Canada, France and Nebraska. Laura wore her wedding dress, and Michael, clad in a suit jacket, donned the bow tie he’d worn during the wedding.
After the pope’s weekly address, the Starlings said they waited “a very long time” while Pope Francis greeted cardinals, religious orders and other groups.
“At this time, we’re kind of waiting with expectation because we were of the understanding that the Secret Service for the pope would essentially pick 10 or 15 couples, and then those 10 or 15 would meet the pope. So, we were waiting, wondering if we were the ones who got to meet the pope or not,” Laura said.
After what might have been an hour, security wheeled Pope Francis toward the newlywed section. The next thing the Starlings knew, they were face-to-face with the Holy Father.
Laura recalls telling him the couple prays for him and asking the pope to bless their marriage while holding a crucifix they’d bought in Rome.
Michael, however, admits he froze. Nonetheless, the pope shook his hand and blessed the couple.
The encounter, the Starlings recalled, lasted 10 or 15 seconds, but they are seconds they’ll treasure forever.
Like the Starlings, the Furrers only had a few seconds with Pope Francis, but they agree the seconds were precious.
The couple attends St. Agnes Parish in Roeland Park and Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish in Kansas City, Missouri.
The couple married on May 1 and had planned a trip to California, but that changed a few weeks before their wedding when a priest friend invited them to say yes to an Italian pilgrimage he was planning for several young couples.
On Sept. 21, the feast of St. Matthew, the couple found themselves in the “sposi novelli” section. Like the Starlings, they were overjoyed when the Holy Father appeared in St. Peter’s Square.
“It was like, ‘Whoa! The pope is a real person,’” exclaimed Matt. “How few men have actually held this office in succession since Peter, and the realization of seeing [the pope] in the flesh was crazy to think of the line of obviously holy men and so many of them saints.”
“This, of all offices in the church,” he continued, “was directly appointed by Christ. And it has the clearest lineage of apostolic succession back to Peter.”
The couple estimates nearly 100 couples were there that day, leading Taylor to abandon any hope of meeting the pope, especially since they were in the fourth row.
So, when the entire front row went up to greet the Holy Father, and then the second and third rows, they found themselves thinking there might be a chance.
Sure enough, the couple was able to greet the pope, but only Matt was able to say a few words.
Taylor “in her feminine genius and with great foresight,” Matt said, had brought the ultrasound picture of the couple’s first child, holding it in front of the pope.
The Holy Father placed his hand on Taylor’s abdomen and offered a prayer, a moment they both said was “extremely humbling” and “awe-inspiring.”
At the time of this interview, the couple was planning to print a photo from that moment to hang on the wall of the nursery, all ready for the child due to arrive any day.
“Hopefully, the photo will be a great witness [to our children] to the reality of faith and of the church that Jesus, who loves them, has a profound impact even today in modern society and in their life,” Taylor said.