Isabella woke up wailing, and the popemobile stopped

Isabella woke up wailing, and the popemobile stopped
Tomás and Regina Bethencourt and their daughter Isabella.

Tomás and Regina Bethencourt and their daughter Isabella.

For Tomás and Regina Bethencourt, babies getting kissed by the pope has been a long-running joke.

“The first time I ever saw the pope I said, ‘I need a baby.’ Everybody who has a baby gets a kiss,” Tomás said.

That was at World Youth Day in 2005 when Tomás was just 14. When the couple, residing in Washington, D.C., made the last-minute decision to come to Philadelphia to catch a glimpse of the pontiff, the joke continued: What if he kissed their 4-month-old daughter, Isabella?

Regina reminded her husband that Philadelphia would be the location of the World Meeting of Families. More than a few parents would have their hearts set on a papal kiss.

They arrived late to the ticketed area for the pope’s address in front of Independence Hall. They didn’t have seats, but their tickets got them inside the security perimeter. They settled near Fifth and Market streets for the papal parade a mere hour before the pope was scheduled to pass by. They were four people deep in the crowd.

Isabella was sleeping and the couple decided they wouldn’t disturb her to make a last-ditch effort at a kiss. But as the popemobile approached, the roar of the crowd swelling around it, Isabella woke up wailing.

Now the baby was awake, and Regina noticed that the popemobile was passing close to the fence holding back the crowd. In a spontaneous motion, she took the baby from Tomás and lifted her high in the air.

A Secret Serviceman pointed. The popemobile slowed to a stop. The baby was passed, hand to hand, into the body guard’s waiting arms.

“It was one of the best moments of my life,” Tomás remembered afterward. “I had so many emotions hitting me at once, I had no way of channeling them all. I just kept yelling out, ‘Esa mía! Esa mía!’ It was such a joyful moment for me, I wanted everyone to know that’s my daughter.”

The Secret Serviceman lifted Isabella up to the popemobile, and with a gesture by now familiar, Pope Francis kissed her.

“When the pope kissed her, he kissed her with tenderness. He held her head and kissed her. It wasn’t like a politician who’s brushing through hands,” Tomás said. “He actually saw her and kissed her.”

Isabella, who usually hates sudden wakeups and changes to routine, who was tired and hungry and had been screaming moments before, crowd surfed her way back to her mother’s arms in complete tranquility.

“Her calm stage before she’s about to go to sleep,” is how Regina described it.

Her parents, by contrast, freaked out.

While Regina wept, Tomás, still overwhelmed by the surge of emotions, called out to the departing popemobile.

“I just kept yelling to the pope, like he was the university chaplain or something, ‘Gracias, Padre! Gracias, Padre!’”

“What was amazing was the people afterward,” Regina said. “It was like we had a mini-pope with us. There was a crowd around us. People were crying. Everyone wanted to touch her.”

Even after the pope finished his speech on Independence Mall, more than an hour later, people in the crowd continued to approach them — “Is that the baby? Can I take a picture? Can I touch her?”

The couple was married in June of 2014, just over a year after graduating from The Catholic University of America. Isabella was born a year later.

“We are a young family. That’s a little bit against the grain. Having kids in your 20s is not really a thing in the U.S. anymore,” Regina said.

“It sometimes can be a lonely choice because you’re not in the majority. To have the pope sort of affirm that — to have him here, to have him energize this crowd that is full of all these young families, and to have him kiss our baby — it just reminds you that you’re part of something so much bigger.”

“For me that something bigger is the vocation of marriage, the vocation of a family, of a father, of a wife, of a mother,” Tomás said.

Both compared the moment of the pope’s kiss to the day they were married — the same overwhelming emotions.

“I was happier than I think I could have been if I had personally met the pope,” Tomás said. “For Isabella to do what she did I think made me way happier than if I had personally gone up to the popemobile and shook his hand.”

“And,” Regina added, “she doesn’t even know!”

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