The day after their June 1998 wedding, Zack and Erin Barcevac of Bryan, Texas, carried their carefully packed wedding attire through several airports and the streets of Rome so they could appear as bride and groom a second time — in order to receive a special blessing for newlywed couples from Pope St. John Paul II.
This wasn’t the only challenge the couple faced in reaching the Holy Father. Early in the trip, the breathing machine Zack needed for daily treatment of his cystic fibrosis was destroyed after an electrical adapter malfunctioned. The couple thought they’d have to return home right away, but, amazingly, a friend of Zack’s parents, who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, happened to have in his office the same machine — set to work via European electrical current — which someone had left, Erin recalled.
The Barcevacs (below) were then able to receive the Pope’s blessing with other newlywed couples. “We considered that to be a miracle — that we were able to stay for our full honeymoon and meet the Pope,” Erin said.
Along with the thousands of pilgrims who attend the Wednesday papal audiences, it’s not unusual to see, seated in a reserved section called the reparto speciale, couples from around the world wearing wedding gowns and suits; after the audience, they often receive the Holy Father’s personal blessing, which they consider spiritual support as they begin their married life together.
The sposi novelli blessing is thought to have originated in the mid-20th century under Venerable Pope Pius XII, according to Sister Mary Juanita of the visitors’ office of the Pontifical North American College in Rome. The office receives about 10 sposi novelli requests per week, while other offices, including the Prefecture of the Papal Household, also receive requests.
Couples seeking the blessing must arrange to attend an audience within two months of their wedding. They need to wear wedding attire to the audience and bring with them a copy of their sacramental marriage certificate.
Couples who received the blessing talk about the experience of meeting the Pope, which often includes surprises along the way.
Before their wedding in August, Joseph and Keri Byrne of Chicago planned to seek the blessing during their honeymoon, but because of Pope Francis’ variable summer schedule, they had to be flexible.
“There wasn’t a guarantee he was going to be there and that our flights and stuff would work out,” Joseph said.
The morning of their August audience, the Byrnes recalled getting dressed before 6am and walking to a deserted St. Peter’s Square. “The sun was rising and shining down on the basilica, and we were the only people in the middle of the square. It was such a special moment,” Joseph said.
To be sure they could see Pope St. John Paul II in July 2001, Drew and Gina Pilkington, of Victoria, Texas, arranged three contacts for obtaining tickets and ended up using two of the options. Since the couple’s wedding had been the year before, Gina said, they didn’t think they could receive the blessing and didn’t bring their bridal attire. When they discovered they did qualify (previously, couples could receive the blessing within a year of their marriage), they shopped quickly in Rome for suitable clothing.
Patrick and Christina Crow of St. Paul, Minn., brought their wedding attire to Rome in March 2003, but because it took them two days to get their luggage, they missed the audience they planned to attend. Fortunately, they had also been given tickets for another audience.
Whether the general audience is outside in the square or indoors, the personal blessing couples often receive afterward is memorable.
When the Byrnes (below) met Pope Francis, Joseph told him about his experience living in Argentina at the time of the Pope’s election, and Pope Francis blessed the couple’s rings. “We thought we would just get a flyby of him, just to say hello, but I felt we got to talk to him for almost a whole minute,” Joseph said.
The first time the Pilkingtons received the sposi novelli blessing from John Paul II, the meeting was brief, so they decided to use a second ticket option the following week.
Being in Pope St. John Paul II’s presence was awe-inspiring for the Crows. “When we stood before St. John Paul II, I remember kissing his ring and looking right into his eyes and thinking, ‘You’re the one who wrote all the things I’ve read,’” Christina said.
While the audience was an amazing experience for the couples, so was walking around Rome in bridal attire. When the Crows walked through St. Peter’s Square and around Rome, onlookers cheered, shouted and offered congratulations in Italian, Christina said. An Italian family who spoke no English wanted their picture taken with the couple.
“It was like out of a movie — cars honking,” Patrick said. “It seemed to be positive. It was constant for about a half hour or 45 minutes — a memorable walk after the blessing.”
Clothing worn for the blessing is special, agreed Gina Pilkington, who later had her dress made into a blanket for their three children’s baptisms. Their daughter wore the veil at her first Communion.
The Pilkingtons (above) felt called to receive the blessing, Gina said, adding that, because John Paul II had been pope during her entire life, she wanted to be in his presence.
The blessing is part of the journey of a newly married couple in the presence of God, Joseph Byrne said. “It’s something that we’ll take with us for the rest of our lives as a powerful symbol of the beginning of our future together,” he said.
As the sposi novelli blessing benefits their marriage, it also can be a witness of Christ to others, Christina Crow said. When visitors see the picture of the Crows receiving the blessing, some ask if they digitally added the Pope to it, Patrick said.
As Christina said: “It is a great witness to people who visit our home. “
The blessing is sometimes a source of miracles.
After the Barcevacs received their blessing, they decided they’d return to Rome five years later. Though, sadly, Zack died of cystic fibrosis four years after their wedding, Erin kept that promise.
At her second general audience with John Paul II, she sat next to an Alabama woman whose 7-year-old granddaughter also had cystic fibrosis. Erin, who has remarried and now lives in Blooming Grove, Texas, was able to send the family some of her late husband’s equipment for treating the illness — a second miracle related to the sposi novelli blessing that she and Zack received, she says.
As a reminder of the marriage covenant, the blessing provides inspiration through hard times as well as good times, Gina Pilkington said.
“In every marriage, you have crosses,” she said. “There’s always something, and I think just that blessing and being able to look at those images and to remember those times reminds you of the covenant that you have — that it’s not just an agreement.”
Susan Klemond writes from
St. Paul, Minnesota.
SPECIAL MOMENT. Main photo: The Crows were all blessed by the Pope shortly after their wedding day. Courtesy of the couple; others photos also courtesy of the couples.