Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, and Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in one of Connecticut’s largest news dailies. He holds an MS degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
“There was a lot of jubilation!’ Troy Hill told me as we talked about the reactions of people welcoming Francis as he arrived at Andrews Air Force Base for his Washington visit.
Young adult Hill and chaperone Shirley Austin were with the children from Holy Comforter - Saint Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington where Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor and Hill was baptized. They had a ringside seat right near where Pope Francis was greeted by President and First Lady Obama.
“It was a surreal feeling,” Hill said still jubilant the morning after. “Not a lot of people can say they were that close to the leader of the Catholic Church and someone who we look up to in the Catholic faith. I could almost reach out and touch that man!”
Hill, Austin, and the children with them had another great honor too. He explained to me:
“It was a surreal feeling because we were the first Americans that this great man got to see when he got off the plane. How many people can say that? We made sure we were loud in welcoming him to the United States, and he got a good smile out of that!”
After Pope Francis was greeted by the President and First Lady, Hill vividly described how “They went in building behind us. The first time the pope glanced in everyone’s direction. When he came back to get back to his car, a little Fiat in the middle of all these big SUVs, we were chanting and trying to get his attention. He looked and smiled and waved and gave us a blessing!”
Getting into the Fiat made another impression. “I thought that was cool,” Hill explained. “He didn’t want to ride in the big trucks, the SUVs.”
“To be able to witness him in person was surreal,” Hill repeated. “It is something I will always cherish and pass along to my kids. I can’t wait till my daughter gets older so I can share this experience with her.” His daughter Tatum is two-years old.
She spent the day with her grandmother because Hill’s wife Tiyonna could not get out of work to see the pope.
“She was there with me in spirit, and she saw me on TV,” Hill said of his wife. He learned that Tiyonna and their friends could see him quite well in television coverage because he was in a close, ideal place.
As we chatted, there became a beautifully clear connection to Hill welcoming Pope Francis, the Hill family, the upcoming World Meeting of Families where the Holy Father will also go, and the pope’s words at the morning ceremonies at the White House.
Francis said he was going to Philadelphia for the WMOF “to celebrate and support the institutions of marriage and the family at this, a critical moment in the history of our civilization.”
Previewing the positives of WMOF, the Hills are building that beautiful marriage and family. Troy Hill shared with me how before the family eats dinner every night, Tatum “holds her hands up and says, ‘Daddy say grace.’”
“She knows when it’s time to eat dinner, we pray before we eat,” Hill said. And her parents surely love to hear her singing her favorite song, “God Is a Good God.”
God surely saw the weather was good when Pope Francis stepped out of the plane.
“It was a beautiful, beautiful day,” Shirley Austin said. “I thank God. It rained maybe about a minute, then it stopped.”
The children didn’t have to use the special ponchos they brought just in case, but they’re going to be souvenirs of the time they greeted Pope Francis for his first-ever steps onto U.S. soil.
“The adults and the children were so excited — all smiles and waves,” Austin said. “Everyone had their own little personal experience that we will take for the rest of our lives.”
In all the excitement waiting for Francis to arrive, she described how they took time to pray a decade of the Rosary with the children and young adults, and to pray the Lord’s Prayer together.
Jada Wields, a 16-year-old old junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington was one of the six young people in the group from Holy Comforter – St. Cyprian Church where she is in the youth ministry, dance ministry and the cantor for the youth choir.
At first she said Jada “didn’t realize how big a deal it would be. I said, Wow! I’m in the same area where the Holy Father is. How special it was when he got off the plane.”
When Francis got closer, Jada recalls how everybody was piling on top of each other to get a look at him. She was stuck but got to see the pope as she looked in between the guards.
“Seeing him there was good enough for me,” Jada said, quite happily. “He didn’t have to come and talk to us.”
“I can’t really describe the feeling,” she explained. “It was a real thrill. He was actually there! It was like a wow! It really overwhelms you. Not everybody has that experience.” She know that “everyone who sees him throughout the week will not be as close to him as I was.”
She said because the bishops and cardinals were talking to the people before Pope Francis arrived, she even got a selfie with Cardinal Wuerl. “It’s ironic because we happened to be at the right place at the right time,” she said.
Next day her theology teachers asked her to share her whole experience with the class.
“It was such a memorable event,” Austin said, “you felt so blessed and favored to be a part of it.”