By LINDA M. LINONIS
The word “awesome” gets quite a workout in today’s vernacular, but few events or things really merit the description. That is unless the word is used to describe a close encounter with Pope Francis.
That’s how Katie Politano, 20, of McDonald and Alexandra “Alex” Latell, 19, of Howland described being in the same vicinity as the Holy Father.
The two are sophomore early-childhood intervention and special-education majors at Walsh University in North Canton. They were in the general audience Dec. 11 in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. The young women from the Mahoning Valley participated in the Global Learning Program at the Walsh Campus in Castel Gondalfo, which also is the pope’s summer residence. They also took various side trips to other European sites.
The students left for the study abroad Oct. 25 and returned Dec. 20. Politano is a daughter of Cheryl and Jeff Politano of McDonald and a graduate of McDonald High School. Latell’s parents are Nora and Rick Latell of Howland, and she graduated from John F. Kennedy High School in Warren.
Politano and Latell know the Walsh students Giovanna Rion of Dover, Ohio, and Kathleen Wagner of Akron who designed a card earmarked for the pope. They and other Walsh students studying at Castel Gondalfo signed the card, which included a letter to Pope Francis written by Rion and Wagner inviting the pontiff to dinner.
The Walsh group arrived early in the square and found a good spot. “We were lucky to have chairs,” Politano said.
As Pope Francis passed by the Walsh group, the pope’s guards saw the card and passed it along to him. The Walsh group has photos of him holding the card. One photo shows the pope holding the card and his thumb is over Politano’s name.
“We were standing on the chairs, screaming and crying,” Politano said. “It was awesome.”
She said the students witnessed Pope Francis “kissing babies and children” and described it as precious.
Politano said the experience was incredible. She said she has read about the pope’s love of people and witnessed it firsthand. “You can see how great he is. ... He takes time with each person ... and shook so many hands,” she said.
Unfortunately, the Walsh students weren’t close enough to shake hands with the pontiff. But they observed the pope’s powerful personality.
At the Mass that followed, Politano said cardinals translated, and the pope asked audience members to pray for him and promised he would pray for them.
Latell said the trip to Rome and “getting up very early when it was very cold” was “all worth it.”
“We were close to him. It was amazing,” she said. “It was emotional being so close to the pope.”
Latell said she was “in shock” when Pope Francis held the Walsh card and kept it. “We were so honored that he had it,” she said.
“I feel closer to God,” Latell said of the experience of being in the pope’s presence.