Two priests from the Houston, Texas area were about to embark on a pilgrimage to Italy with their parishioners to celebrate their momentous anniversaries into the priesthood until Hurricane Harvey hit the Texan shores.

The campus of St. Ignatius of Loyola Catholic Church in Spring, Texas, was completely destroyed. Four and a half feet of water filled the sanctuary of the church and many parishioners lost their homes.

“It just changed everything,” said Nancy Gold, parishioner. “It was a very humbling experience. You feel homeless.”

For many, it was a time of loss and sacrifice, unity and prayer. Fr. Norbert Maduzia, pastor of St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Fr. James Burkart, pastor of Christ of the Good Shepherd, sent a letter to Pope Francis expressing their heartbreaks and asking for prayers.

They received more than that.

Six months later, Maduzia and Burkhart were preparing to personally meet the Pope after his private Mass at Casa Santa Marta, Feb. 6, 2018 with special gifts from the Houston community.

“What was originally a pilgrimage of celebrating priesthood became a celebration of thanksgiving for making it through the flood and for rebuilding our parish facilities along the way,” Norbert said.

One of those gifts was what the Houstonians call the “Astros rosary,” referring to the 2017 World Series Champions. These rosaries were handmade and sold at many Houston Astros baseball games from Annunciation Catholic Church, which sits across the street from the baseball stadium. These rosary beads grew so popular during the championship that even the Astros team owner bought a strand.

Maduzia shared with Pope Francis that whenever the blue and orange rosaries sold out, the Astros would win.

“He really chuckled along with it and so I said to him, ‘you have to pray for them, for the Astros,’ and he said, ‘no pray for me.’”

There were two other gifts they presented. A Christmas ornament, made from one of the St. Ignatius parishioners, of a picture from the flooded sanctuary placed on a ceramic disk with a scripture quote about walking through the waters and trusting in God. The other was a pen made from the wood of an altar chair in the flooded sanctuary. The wood was spun in the base of the pen, made by one of the Christ of the Good Shepherd parishioners.

Maduzia shared how simple and gentle Pope Francis was during their time celebrating Mass and speaking about the impact of Hurricane Harvey.

“His facial expressions were very welcoming, very concerned about the flood and the devastation of our parish community. But yet, very jovial again about the Houston Astros rosary,” Maduzia remembers.

The pilgrimage has been a moment of grace, but the journey to get 44 parishioners to Rome wasn’t easy after the Hurricane. Many parishioners are staying with family and friends while their homes, and the church facilities, are still under construction.

“We had stranger helping stranger, neighbor helping neighbor,” Gold explained. “It was really incredible to see the work of Christ’s hands and feet in action with people helping each other there.”

These challenges are what made their trip a true pilgrimage.

Before arriving in Rome, they traveled around Italy to visit many homes of different saints, one of them being St. Francis of Assisi. One of the Franciscans, aware of the pilgrims’ situation said, “In this place of Francis you have to ask yourself, what does God want from you for stripping yourself through the floods.”

This question was the cornerstone throughout their journey that they pondered on in their group reflections every night. So much so, that one of their members who has been married 50 years to a Catholic, announced one evening he wanted to become a Catholic.

“We ask the pilgrims to think about how does God reveal himself to you in every moment of every day in this pilgrimage,” said Burkart. “We want the concept of Church to get bigger so that we can all understand God is bigger than we can imagine sometimes.”

The pilgrimage finished with that concept of “the big Church” when the group attended Pope Francis’ Wednesday General Audience with people from all over the world.

This was the highlight and pinnacle of the trip, Gold shared. To see the continuity and strength of their faith through their spiritual journey gave them hope and encouragement.

“We will be able to take that same message and bring it back to Houston with us and share that with the people who showed that to us.

Watch their full story on EWTN’s latest episode of Vaticano, which is embedded above. (The Houston pilgrimage story starts at the 7:57 mark.)