Giving thanks and running into the secretary of state

Julianne Calzonetti and her friend pose for a Thanksgiving photo with Camden seminarians Peter Gallagher and Rev. Mr. Joshua Nevitt. Bottom, Calzonetti with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

Everything on paper went wrong this Thanksgiving, “but as it is written: eye has not seen what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). So begins the story of your five Diocese of Camden members living in Rome, who in the midst of seemingly impossible mishaps, unknowingly followed God to the most marvelous surprise.

“Jules, you didn’t have to pay for me!” Shannon reiterated, referring to the Pontifical North American College’s 5k Thanksgiving Turkey Trot.

“Actually Shannon,” I thought, “I did, because I didn’t tell you it was at 5:45 a.m.” She is my closest childhood confidant, a mutual friend of the seminarians, and was visiting for the holiday week.

As nowhere in her vocabulary are the words “morning person,” this was the only way to be assured of her participation. Nonetheless, perhaps this is also why the Lord let her have the last laugh: we overslept by six hours, missing four alarms and eight phone calls.

Such a wakeup meant we had 20 minutes to prepare for noon Mass and lunch at the college, alongside the boys; Callista Gingrich, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See; and American cardinals in town.

“I’m telling Pete we’re running late,” I said, desperately trying to reach across the racks of drying laundry for my phone. Simultaneously, she fell to the floor with a clamor, and I, looking at my comrade down, wondered what was going on.

“I thought I put contact solution in my eye, but it’s burning! What is that?”

Our bulging hypochondriac eyes met: it was hydrogen peroxide.

By the time we cared for her sore eyes, we were too late for Mass — even by Italian standards — so we went directly to Pontifical North American College. Seminarians Peter Gallagher, Paul Abbruscato and Josh Nevitt provided a needed sense of home. These little moments of comfort never cease to bring joy, because they put into perspective all that becomes magnified when being so far away.

The celebration took place in the college’s grand dining hall, where tables flowed without end and were divided along state lines.

With the conclusion of a spiritually nourishing feast, Shannon and I climbed down the hill as darkness seeped over the city and made our way into the Basilica. As she carried on, immersed in its grandeur for the first time, I stopped at the tomb of Saint John Paul II to say the Luminous Mysteries. My rosary was given to me at my baptism by Father Frederick Link — now living in retirement at Saint Joseph the Worker Parish in Haddon Township — and blessed by the very saint at whose tomb I knelt.

Before beginning the final decade, I pleaded, “Saint JP, please intercede for me.” At the very moment I whispered my final “amen,” a message appeared on my iPhone from Shannon:

“POPE!!!! THE POPE!!!”

Without a moment’s pause, I stumbled out of the pew and sprinted toward Bernini’s baldacchino, rising above the high altar. Awaiting the faithful pilgrims was a barricade, preventing anyone from reaching the chapel located behind it — the Altar of the Chair of Saint Peter — where Pope Francis was holding a prayer vigil for South Sudan and Congo.

“We can sneak into this,” I said, grabbing her jacket, in a hot pursuit to the other side of Saint Peter’s. “We can enter at the tomb of Saint John XXIII.”

Quickly bowing our heads to ask for the saint’s blessing, we arrived at the first of three attractive barriers that separated us from the Holy Father.

“Can we enter to pray with the pope?”

“No,” the guard said, “only for confession.”

“Shannon, we’re going to confession.”

Nodding at each other, we pretended to peel right toward the confessionals, putting us level with the High Altar. In ample time, we tip-toed back to find what we had hoped: the guard took his eyes off of us. Midway through our dash to the pontiff, he caught on and chased us back to the confessionals.

“We’re going to be the two girls kicked out of the Basilica,” Shannon panted.

“At least Francis will see us! Pray to Saint Thérèse. Security had to take her away from the pope,” I chimed, as we came face to face with the guard.

“I thought you were going to confession,” the handsome Italian said.

“There’s someone there, look,” I replied, holding my palms face up toward the barely visible boots sticking out the side.

“Boh,” he responded, raising his chin. As he himself entered the Vigil, so too did we flee toward the final two guards.

“Can we please enter to see Pope Francis?”

“Of course.”

Scurrying across the threshold in disbelief, I locked eyes with our first friend. Grinning, I raised my hands in innocence, and turned to face the Vicar of Christ. With the impartation of his blessing also came his quick exit with many other officials, except for one: Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state.

“Hold this,” I said to Shannon, thrusting my phone into her arms. “Document this introduction.”

Going against the current, and fending off two policemen, I found myself at the feet of His Eminence. In my very best Italian, I held his hand and humbly articulated,

“Thank you for your work; thank you so much.”

He laughed, and with a spark in his eyes, answered, “English?”

Julianne Calzonetti was born and raised in Cherry Hill, where her family were members of Saint Pius X Parish. She is currently pursuing an Arts/Media Management Master’s degree at the American University of Rome.