August 9, 2019

A wish comes true: Teenager finds her life’s dream and meets Pope Francis during challenging journey

Father John Fink, middle, celebrates a Mass on May 26 at St. Michael Church in Bradford to mark the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. Deacon John Jacobi, left, assists at the Mass. Father Aaron Pfaff, pastor of St. Michael Parish, was a concelebrant. (Submitted photo)

Kathleen Soller, left, smiles and shakes Pope Francis’ hand at the end of his general audience outside St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City on June 19. Her mother, Joanne Soller, and her sister, Lizzy, also bask in the moment. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

Kathleen Soller considers it the trip of her lifetime—a 10-day cruise with her family that stopped at ports in Greece, Malta and Italy, and that also included a personal moment with Pope Francis at the Vatican.

“It was amazing,” says Soller, who is 19. “Just the fact that we got to go to so many places and enjoy it as a family.

“And everyone I tell thinks it’s the coolest thing in the world that I met the pope!”

Yet as special as that cruise and that meeting earlier this summer were for Soller, it was only part of a much more remarkable journey that has touched her life in the past two years.

It’s a journey that began in May of 2017, when Soller received the news that would devastate nearly anyone, let alone an athletic teenager who competed in track, cross country, gymnastics and lacrosse at Roncalli High School in Indianapolis.

“I had been in the hospital since May 11,” recalls Soller, a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood. “I was having a lot of difficulty breathing. The cardiologist found fluid around my heart. They sent me to Riley [Hospital for Children in Indianapolis], and they did a CT scan. And they found a tumor.”

Soller was diagnosed with cancer, specifically “primary mediastinal large B-cell lymphoma.” Doctors told her that her treatment would start with six rounds—of six days each—of chemotherapy from May to September of that year.

As frightening as that news was, Soller approached it in a surprising way.

Challenges and a cry of happiness

“Never once was I scared I was going to die,” recalls Soller, who was at the end of her junior year in high school when she was diagnosed. “I remember the doctors telling me the treatment had positive results with other kids, and they thought it would work out well. I was confident everything would be OK.

“Going into it, my faith was strong, which helped me tremendously. I wasn’t angry at God or blaming God. There’s that saying, ‘God gives his hardest battles to his strongest soldiers.’ I just accepted it and kept going.”

Still, there were challenges along the way. After the treatments, she was exhausted. She also had the challenge of keeping up with her schoolwork while she was in the hospital at the end of her junior year and the beginning of her senior year at Roncalli.

Through it all, she prayed to Pope Francis, asking for his intercession to God. She also learned to rely on the help of others in her times of struggle.

“I missed a lot of school even after I was done with the treatments. Roncalli was very accommodating. They said they would do anything to help me graduate on time. All my teachers were very helpful. A few even came to the hospital to tutor me on the things I missed. It just proved to me that Roncalli has family values and how much they cared about me.”

She also grew to count on the care of the nurses at Riley.

“I was in the hospital for every round of chemotherapy. The nurses there are so loving, and they treat you as one of their children. They get to know you. They became my friends.”

She was surrounded by them on Sept. 26, 2017, when she rang the bell on the oncology floor at Riley—a symbolic ringing that signified that her treatments had been a success and she was considered cancer-free.

“I cried—a happy cry, a release of emotion,” she recalls.

A dream, a dance and a wish come true

The nurses at Riley also became her role models for the future she has envisioned for herself.

She will soon begin her sophomore year at Saint Mary’s College in northern Indiana where she is studying to become a nurse. After she graduates, she hopes to return to Riley in that role.

“That would be my dream job. I just want to return to the place that gave me my life back. I hope to do the same for other kids.”

Soller is already striving to make a difference in the lives of children. When she returns to Saint Mary’s, she will continue to be on the committee that runs the college’s dance marathon that benefits Riley. She will also continue her efforts as a board member of the Make‑A-Wish club at the nearby University of Notre Dame, a club that raises funds that help make wishes come true for South Bend children facing life‑threatening situations.

Beyond her concern for the children, she also views these commitments as a way of giving thanks to Make-A-Wish of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana for granting her wish: the 10-day cruise to Italy, Greece and Malta for her, her brother Ryan, her sister Lizzy and their parents, Pat and Joanne.

“I wanted to travel somewhere and do something my whole family would enjoy—something my family wouldn’t ever have the opportunity to do. I thought it would be the perfect fit.”

What also made the cruise in late June perfect for her was that it began and ended in Rome. She wanted to visit the Vatican, tour St. Peter’s Basilica and take part in a general audience with Pope Francis. She just never expected that being among the thousands of people for the pope’s general audience on June 19 would lead to her family getting the opportunity to meet the pope.

‘I’m still in shock that it happened’

Soller’s mom had arranged for the family to get general admission tickets to the papal audience.

“We went to pick up our general admission tickets as soon as we got to Rome, and they handed me an envelope with a special ticket [for VIP seating],” Joanne Soller recalls. “Another family had to cancel, and they gave us that ticket. They said, ‘You will probably meet the pope.’ ”

When the Sollers arrived at the papal audience, their special ticket placed them in the second of the three closest rows to where Pope Francis would speak.

“There’s no training to meet the pope,” Kathleen Soller says. “I started thinking about what I would say to him. I thought maybe I should say, ‘Nice to meet you’—and thank him for all the work he’s done with the youth.”

After the audience lasted for about 90 minutes, Pope Francis began to walk toward the three closest rows.

“There were about 50 people in our section—all families with children who were ill or had disabilities,” Soller says. “He shook every person’s hand. And every person got a picture with him. When he came to our row, I was the last in our family. No one else said anything. They shook his hand and smiled. In my head, I thought I had to say something because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

“He came over and shook my hand. I said, ‘It’s wonderful to meet you.’ In English, he said, ‘Pray for me.’ ”

She says it all took about two seconds, but it’s a moment she’ll always remember.

“I’m still in shock that it happened. I thought it was kind of funny that I prayed to Pope Francis for his intercession and then I got to meet him. It’s a very special fun fact I can share now: ‘Oh, I met the pope. I shook his hand.’ ”

‘I learned so much about being grateful’

That joyful reality led to some fun and interesting reactions when she returned from the cruise to become a counselor this summer at Camp Rancho Framasa, the archdiocese’s Catholic Youth Organization camp in Brown County.

“I told the story to some of my campers at bedtime,” she says. “They all put their hands out of their bunks and asked me to shake their hand. It’s like a second-hand pope handshake.”

Soller shares that moment with a sense of joy and wonder. Those two qualities flow through the way she tells the story of the past 27 months of her life. So do the qualities of perspective and faith.

“Overall, being diagnosed with cancer is a very humbling experience,” says Soller, who continues to be cancer-free after her last six-month checkup. “I’m blessed to come out the other end and be healthy. I’ve met so many incredible people. It helped me realize I wanted to be a nurse. And I learned so much about being grateful and never taking anything for granted. It was hard, but it was a very important moment in my life.

“My faith has allowed me to keep a positive attitude and have a better outlook on my life. Knowing what I went through has allowed me to grow in my faith and give greater glory to God.” †

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