September 23, 2016

A wonderful adventure: Newlyweds experience once-in-a-lifetime encounter with Pope Francis on Italy trip

Elisabeth and Scott Williams of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis smile in complete joy as they meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on August 3. The couple was married in St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on May 28, and later traveled to Rome after they learned about the long-standing tradition of popes offering a blessing to newlyweds. (Photo courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano)

Elisabeth and Scott Williams of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis smile in complete joy as they meet Pope Francis at the Vatican on August 3. The couple was married in St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on May 28, and later traveled to Rome after they learned about the long-standing tradition of popes offering a blessing to newlyweds. (Photo courtesy of L’Osservatore Romano)

By John Shaughnessy

As they prepared for their trip to Italy to try to get a special blessing of their marriage from Pope Francis, Scott and Elisabeth Williams kept telling each other that it would be fine if their plan didn’t turn out as they hoped.

After all, their wedding at St. Luke the Evangelist Church in Indianapolis on May 28 had been a magical day—a day, Elisabeth says, when “everything came together so beautifully, and I was getting to marry the love of my life.”

And no matter what happened with the pope, the couple would still have a week together in Rome.

Yet deep in their hearts, Scott and Elisabeth both thought it would be tremendous to experience a long-standing, wedding-related tradition at the Vatican.

It’s a tradition that holds that if a couple arrives for a Wednesday audience with the pope within six months of their wedding and wears the clothes they were married in (or similar attire), they will be allowed to sit in a reserved section where they will receive a “blessing of newlyweds” from the pope.

There was also one other tradition that Scott hoped to experience—a tradition that would let him leave their potential meeting with Pope Francis with the pontiff’s zucchetto, the white skullcap that a pope wears.

And so in late July, Scott and Elisabeth began one of those amazing adventures of life, love and faith that they hope helps to define their marriage.

First, the good news

Their adventure to Rome began with the extra challenge of arriving separately, from different continents.

As the coordinator of youth ministry for the archdiocese, Scott helped lead 104 youths on a 12-day pilgrimage to World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, in late July—a journey of faith that climaxed with more than 1.6 million young people from around the globe taking part in a Mass celebrated by Pope Francis on July 31.

When World Youth Day ended, Scott began the trip from Krakow to Rome to meet Elisabeth, who was flying from Indianapolis with her wedding gown and his tuxedo. Fortunately, the flight attendants on each part of her 12-hour journey made a place for her to hang the clothes.

So on Tuesday, Aug. 2, Scott and Elisabeth were reunited and heading toward the Pontifical North American College in Rome for an orientation meeting about the papal audience. There, the couple was told some good news and some potential bad news.

First, the good news.

“We were told the Wednesday audience was being moved inside because it was so hot,” Scott recalls. “I thought I would be sitting in my tux for hours on end, sweating bullets, while Elisabeth was going to be on the ground.”

Yet there was also the reminder that the Wednesday audience could be cancelled at the last minute, and even if it was held, there was no guarantee that every newlywed couple would meet Pope Francis.

To help increase their odds, Scott and Elisabeth awakened very early that Wednesday morning for the audience that began at 10 a.m.

“Rome is the only place in the world where you can walk around in wedding attire at five in the morning and no one thinks it’s weird,” Scott says. “We arrived at 5:30, which if you’ve been to Rome at that time, it’s still dark. But there are some crazier people in the world than us, and they were already in line in front of us. I thought, ‘We’re not going to meet the pope now.’ ”

Hope begins to soar as the pope…

As they waited in line for the security gates to open, the crowd—which often numbers tens of thousands for a general papal audience—began to swell. When they made it through the metal detectors, they ran toward the reserved section for newlyweds, joining about 60 couples

from around the world.

“It was so cool to see these different people from different countries and what they wore—and how beautiful every bride looked,” Elisabeth recalls. “In the crowd, people were waving flags. It was really neat.”

During the audience, a reading about the Beatitudes was shared in seven languages. Then Pope Francis talked about his experience during World Youth Day.

“At the end of the audience, the pope gave a papal blessing to everyone there,” Scott says. “The blessing extends to your immediate family and anyone you know who is sick. He also greeted about 100 people in wheelchairs who were there for physical blessings.”

Then Pope Francis made his way to the reserved section for newlyweds, where Scott and Elisabeth believed they had positioned themselves well to meet the pope.

Standing together, second in line at one end of the newlywed group, they watched as Pope Francis turned away from their end and started greeting couples at the opposite end. As much as they wanted to meet the pope, they tried to put it all in perspective.

“I really was content with whatever would happen because God has blessed us so much in our lives,” Elisabeth says. “We were already in the pope’s presence, and God was here.”

They noticed how Pope Francis took time with the first few couples at the opposite end of the line. They also smiled as they saw each couple radiate with joy in the pope’s presence. And their hopes began to soar as they watched Pope Francis greeting and shaking hands with every couple in line, getting closer and closer to them.

Suddenly, Pope Francis was in front of them smiling. And just as suddenly, the plan they had rehearsed in the hope of meeting the pope went up in smoke.

‘I felt like such a dope’

“We had a whole plan worked out,” Scott says with a smile.

Elisabeth and Scott know that the native language of Pope Francis is Spanish. So Elisabeth, who is fluent in Spanish, was prepared to speak in that language to the pope. But she became flustered when Pope Francis finished his conversation with the previous couple by asking them—in English—to pray for him.

“Now, I’m thinking Pope Francis is in English mode, so I speak English, which totally confuses Scott,” Elisabeth says with a laugh.

Before Elisabeth’s switch of languages, Scott was ready to tell Pope Francis

that he was delivering “a message from our Archbishop of Indianapolis to the Holy Father.”

“What I ended up saying was, ‘Hello, Archbishop, the Pope says hi,’ ” Scott says. “I put my head down. I felt like such a dope.”

Elisabeth didn’t mind her husband’s blunder: “Yeah, but because you did that, I spent more time holding his hand, which was nice.”

Scott adds, “On the bright side, he is the bishop of Rome, so I wasn’t completely wrong. I ended up saying, ‘Hi, Pope Francis.’ ”

He also ended up with the pope’s zucchetto, the white skullcap the pontiff wears—which is a story in itself.

‘Is he really going to do this?!’

At a previous World Youth Day in either Madrid or Rio de Janiero—Scott isn’t certain—he witnessed a moment where the pope exchanged the zucchetto he was wearing for a zucchetto that someone in the crowd offered him.

Intrigued, Scott returned home from that World Youth Day, did some research and learned there is a long-standing tradition about the cap exchange, at least when it happens in Rome.

It starts with going to the pope’s tailor in Rome, a shop named Gammarelli, and buying a white papal zucchetto that matches the same size as the one the current pope wears.

“It’s a standing tradition that if you have the same size of zucchetto as the pope, he will trade you,” Scott says. “We went to the pope’s personal tailor, and we got a zucchetto. So when the pope came to me, I said in Spanish, ‘Do you want to exchange your zucchetto?’ I’m not sure I said it correctly, but he saw it in my hand.”

Scott was the only one among the newlyweds to make the exchange offer to Pope Francis.

“There was this moment of silence. ‘Is he really going to do this?!’ ” Scott recalls.

“He tried on our zucchetto that we purchased, looked at his guides, they gave him a nod of approval, and he gave us his zucchetto. Now we have the pope’s zucchetto.”

Scott beams and says, “When he traded, it was like scoring a touchdown at the Super Bowl.”

‘A wonderful adventure’

So Scott and Elisabeth have a zucchetto that Pope Francis wore. They also have a special blessing from him for their marriage, some terrific photos with the pope, and an abundance of other great memories and moments from their week together in Rome.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Elisabeth says. “It was a wonderful adventure to start our marriage.”

Their trip to Italy also gave them one more gift that they hope carries through their marriage in the future.

“You can feel Pope Francis’ joy radiating from people,” Elisabeth says. “The more we can strive for that, the more we’re in relationship with God, the more that will bring us fulfillment and peace.

“We want to mimic the relationship that Pope Francis has with God, and be in that kind of relationship, too. The pope lives out the Gospel. And we dearly want to live out the Gospel. That’s what Scott and I want to do in our marriage.”

(For information on papal audiences, visit the website,

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