ROME — The 2-year-old daughter of a Catholic News Agency bureau chief shared a brief but intimate greeting with Pope Francis on Sunday, leaving the girl and her father all smiles.
“She was right at home with the Holy Father,” Alan Holdren, the head of CNA’s Rome bureau, said June 24.
Isabel accompanied Holdren, who was covering a special trip for disadvantaged children organized by the Pontifical Council for Culture and Trenitalia, an Italian train service. The children were brought in on a high-speed train “for the extraordinary experience of leaving their home cities” to meet Pope Francis.
Holdren said he brought Isabel along with him on assignment, knowing there would be other children there, but he never expected to behold “such an intimate encounter” with the Pope.
The Holy Father came straight from the Sunday Angelus June 23 in St. Peter’s Square, where thousands of pilgrims were gathered to pray with him from afar. At the train station, Holdren contrasted, “he met with just 250 children” and “another couple hundred” family members and volunteers.
“There was a real warmth and authenticity to it all, and you could tell it was just what the little boys and girls needed.”
As the Pope emerged from the four-door sedan that brought him to the station, the small crowd gathered to form a “human corridor” for him to walk through as he met the children.
“He must have greeted every single one of the kids with a handshake, hug or kiss,” Holdren said. “You could tell he was in his element, and being there with him and all those kids was really exciting.”
Soon, Holdren saw an opening in the line and took the opportunity to catch a closer glimpse of the Pope.
Isabel, her dad said, knows who the Holy Father is from praying for him as a family and being in St. Peter’s Square on the night of his election.
“Every time she passes St. Peter’s, she says, ‘Pope’ and points to the balcony where he first appeared,” Holdren said, adding that after his election Isabel “must have said, ‘Yay, Pope!’ and clapped for weeks after.”
So when Pope Francis stopped right in front of Holdren and Isabel, “It was almost like seeing Grandpa.”
He reached out and touched Isabel’s shoulder saying, “E’ bella, eh!” or, “Ah, beautiful!” which is when Holdren said the girl broke into a smile.
“I actually didn’t see the ear-to-ear smile until I saw the pictures later,” Holdren explained. “She’s a pretty friendly little girl, and she’s used to seeing the Pope from a distance.”
Clutching her pacifier, Isabel responded with a beaming smile captured by Stefano Dal Pozzolo, a photographer for the daily Italian paper Avvenire.
A Nebraska native, Holdren said that living in Rome for the past several years has been “a bit different” than his hometown of Friend, Neb. — a town of just 1,100 people.
However, the cultural and language barriers are trumped by the “real feeling of belonging to a single Catholic faith that comes with being here.”
“Everyone is connected through the Church and Christ and his representative here in the person of Pope Francis. And it really does feel like you’re in a family.”
Over the past several months, from the resignation of Benedict XVI to the election of Pope Francis, Holdren said that sense of kinship has been felt in “a more intense way,” despite the “whirlwind” of changes.
Seeing his daughter experience such an encounter with the Holy Father helped him realize that she, too, is at home. Isabel “was right at home with the Holy Father,” he said.
In January, John Paul Uebbing, the nearly 1-year-old son of CNA Rome Bureau's head, David Uebbing, was one of the last children to be kissed by Pope Benedict XVI following his final audience as he toured St. Peter’s Square in the popemobile on Feb. 27.
His mother, Jennifer, said she saw the occurrence as a chance to say “thank you” to the then-Holy Father for his life of service to the Church.