|Pope Francis greets St. Henry School students Alessandra, left, Ariana, and Brayden Thacker at St. Matthew Cathedral in Washington after he spoke with U.S. bishops there on Sept. 23. Their parents Gianna and Jason Thacker, along with their great uncle, Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, look on. Gianna Thacker’s uncle, Cardinal Wuerl, helped arrange the encounter.
When Pope Francis greeted St. Henry parishioner Gianna Thacker’s three children by patting and kissing each of them on the head, it was a “surreal” moment, she said. “I don’t even know if I shook his hand,” she said with a laugh. But she does know that it was a moment that she will remember forever.
Thacker and her husband Jason, along with their children, Ariana, 10; Alessandra, 9; and Brayden, 7, all students at St. Henry School in Nashville, attended several papal events in Washington, D.C., thanks to Gianna’s uncle, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C.
“Our family is very close,” Thacker said, with deep Catholic roots. She and other family members have also had the opportunity to meet Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, thanks to “Uncle Don.”
During Pope Francis’ visit, the Thackers attended the pope’s meeting with U.S. bishops at St. Matthew Cathedral, and were among only a handful of non-clergy members present.
The Thackers’ first encounter with Pope Francis came when he stepped out of a side door in the cathedral near them, patted the children on the head, and prayed right in front of them.
After the bishops’ meeting, the Thacker family was able to have a truly personal encounter with Pope Francis.
Oldest daughter Ariana had rehearsed a greeting in Spanish to introduce herself; younger daughter Alessandra gave a brief hello in English; son Brayden was planning to say “Welcome to D.C.!” but got nervous and instead blurted out “Welcome to New York!” which got a laugh from Pope Francis.
After the Thackers’ brief meeting with the pope, they were ushered into a car that was part of the motorcade from St. Matthew to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, where Pope Francis celebrated the canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra.
The next day the Thacker family was able to witness Pope Francis’ historic address to Congress from inside the gallery. “I think there was only one other child in there besides ours,” Thacker said. She and her family applauded along with members of Congress watching the speech, she said. “It was a lot of up and down.”
Thacker said her most important takeaway from the papal visit experience was “the message of family – how important it is.” Since Pope Francis’ trip to the United States stemmed from his participation in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, “he was talking about the family the entire time,” she said. “And it’s because of family that we were there. We are so thankful for that.”
Powerful encounter with pope
The Thackers weren’t the only Catholics from the Diocese of Nashville to have an encounter with the pope during his visit to Washington.
Michelle Barber was in the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., when Pope Francis, on his way to celebrating the canonization Mass for St. Junipero Serra, stopped to greet someone behind her.
“When he came out of the hug, he looked right at me and smiled,” said Barber, the Dean of Advancement and Admissions at Pope John Paul II High School. Before she could shake his hand, the pope was ushered to the next person waiting to greet him.
“It happened so quickly, I was standing there thinking to myself, did that really happen,” Barber said of her encounter with the pope.
“It was an honor and a thrill of a lifetime to be close to His Holiness,” Barber said. “That would be a remarkable experience for anyone.”
Barber flew to Washington just to attend the canonization Mass on Wednesday, Sept. 23.
“Most remarkable for me was seeing so many people coming together and worshiping together,” Barber said. “Everyone you met had a story about how they came upon their tickets, how they organized their trip. There were people from all over the country.”
“It was so emotional to see everybody was so jubilant,” Barber said. “There was such an excitement in the air.”
Pope Francis once wrote that “you have to do everything with a big heart. Most importantly, the small, everyday tasks you have to do that with a big heart too,” Barber said. “That was really his message” during his trip to the United States, she added.
“He really showed us that. … Just his actions spoke louder than words throughout the entire trip,” Barber said.
Seeing the large, enthusiastic crowds welcoming Pope Francis, Barber said, “made me realize what a vibrant church we are. … It’s just a great time to be Catholic.”