'Right place at the right time'

by Sonja J. Keith

Alan and Regina Hoelzeman recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Rome, which included a “right place at the right time” opportunity to meet Pope Francis.

For several years the Sardis (Conway County) couple had discussed a special trip—“something big”— to celebrate their anniversary, including an Alaskan cruise or a trip to Hawaii. Alan said he woke up one morning with an idea to go to Rome. “I thought we’d probably never do anything like this big again. I really wanted to go to Italy,” he said.

Rome was particularly appealing because the family is Catholic and Alan’s mom is full-blooded Italian. Planning for the trip began a year in advance, with a lot of research on where to stay and what to do. “Being devout Catholics it was important that we see as much of Vatican City as well as ancient Rome,” Alan said.

The couple left April 3 for the long trip to Rome and returned April 13. They selected a bed and breakfast located just outside the Vatican for lodging. “I could see the Vatican dome from my bedroom window,” Alan said. “It was magnificent.”

Each morning the couple would share their plans for the day with Rosanna, one of the owners of the bed and breakfast, who had been a tour guide. “She knew everything, where to be and when to be there.”

Based on his research, Alan and Regina knew that the Pope had public audiences various times during the week.

“This particular week he would have an audience and a blessing at noon on Sunday and then a public mass that evening at St. John Lateran, which is the Pope’s Cathedral,” Alan said, adding that they arrived three hours early to stake out a good place to watch the noon audience but already there were nearly 15,000 gathered. By the time it started, the crowd had swelled to 25,000.

Unfortunately, the location that had been recommended by Rosanna to see the Pope did not work out because of scaffolding that had been placed to whitewash the Vatican walls. Instead, the couple settled for watching the Pope on one of the large screens set up in the courtyard.

“Since we didn’t get to see him at noon, Rosanna said we should go to the Cathedral and try to see him there. It turns out this was Divine Mercy Sunday, and it was the day that the Pope was to be formally installed as the Bishop of Rome.”

The trip to the cathedral was long and taxing, including a subway ride. When they arrived at the church, there were already 3,000 people in line.

“By the time we walked the long distance to the church, I was tired beyond words and my legs and back were aching mercilessly,” Alan said. “I was born with Spina bifida and it usually doesn’t slow me down much, but this was a little too much. Regina saw where they had some wheelchairs available, and she told me she was going to get me one.”

Italian police officers were issuing the wheelchairs, and Regina had to give them her passport in exchange for one. Discouraged at the prospect of getting inside the church, the couple settled in front of a big screen so they could watch the proceedings inside.

While waiting, a police officer walked over to Alan and Regina and told them to go to another area where they would be allowed inside the church. Their eyes “lit up,” and they complied but were told by another officer that they could not go inside, so they returned to their spot by the monitor.

“That same police officer came back and asked us why we were back. We told him that they said we couldn’t go up there. He said, ‘You wait here,’ and in a few minutes he came back with a man in a suit and dark glasses, and he told us ‘you come with me.’”

The man escorted the couple to the entrance of the church, and they went inside before many of those waiting in line. “That’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time.”

Individuals in wheelchairs were lined up in a corridor, which led to a big room. “We were sitting directly across from a television monitor, so we could see everything that was going on. All of the dignitaries that were in attendance walked in front of us on their way to their appointed seats. We must have seen 10 or 15 Cardinals and Archbishops.”

The mayor of Rome even came by and shook their hands.

Alan and Regina saw on the monitor when the Pope arrived.

“The crowd just erupted,” Alan said. “Suddenly he came around the corner, and he continued greeting and shaking hands with everybody that was along the aisles. Sure enough he started working his way toward us. I turned to my wife and I said, ‘This is not really happening is it? I am going to have a heart attack and die right here.’

“He came and stood in front of me and reached out his hands to mine and looked me directly into the eyes with his warm smile. I was petrified. I kissed his hands and squeezed them, but I could not speak a word. It was like my mouth was cemented shut.”

Alan was in awe of the Pope, who placed his hand on the Arkansan’s head like he was blessing him. The entire incident lasted only 15 to 20 seconds, although the anticipation of meeting the Holy Father seemed to last forever.

“Then here he is in front of me, and then he was gone,” Alan said. “It wasn’t long enough for me.”

Alan was mesmerized by the Pope, who passed within 2 to 3 feet of the group three times before and a
fter the service.

Alan has relived the moment over and over again and is only sorry that Regina did not have a chance to touch the Pope’s hands and meet him. Despite shaking through the experience, she took photos of Alan with the Pope. “She said it meant more to her to watch me get to do it.”

The couple saw many sights on the trip— the Coliseum, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica—but meeting the Pope was the highlight of the anniversary trip. “Without a doubt,” Alan said.

It was difficult for Alan and Regina to leave Rome when the time came. They had become attached to the owners of the bed and breakfast and to the city. They are ready to return but not sure when or if that might happen.

“It was truly an experience of a lifetime, one that not too many people have,” Alan said. “We feel that we were truly blessed to have experienced this and will never forget it.

“Next to marrying my wife and the birth of my two children, this is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me. I’m still in the clouds.”