By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published July 7, 2005
On the Atlanta archdiocesan pilgrimage to Rome, three of the group of over 70 pilgrims learned one morning that they had been chosen by lot to be the ones introduced to Pope Benedict XVI during a general audience at the Vatican.
It was a divine gift, and they were elated.
Barbara Goeden of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, Deacon Hilliard Lee of St. Paul of the Cross Church in Atlanta, and Earl Massaroni of St. Lawrence Church in Lawrenceville learned during early morning Mass on June 30 at St. Anselmo Church that they were selected to represent the Atlanta contingent that afternoon.
“I was just awestruck. I put my arms up in the air like I was talking to God, saying thank you. I was just so honored. It was unbelievable,” said Goeden.
She and her husband Herbert were part of the June 22 to July 2 pilgrimage led by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, culminating in the June 29 papal Mass at which he received the pallium, signifying his authority and his unity with the pope as Atlanta’s new shepherd.
The following day the pope greeted each new archbishop individually at his general audience held in a large hall. When the pope came out on a stage vested in white and gold and wearing a tall miter, the large audience hall erupted, Goeden said, as people stood up and clapped.
The 78-year-old German pontiff, who speaks 10 languages, welcomed the people from around the world in various languages.
“He was so beautiful,” said the 77-year-old Goeden.
Many bishops sat in front with small groups of their pilgrims who were to be called up to meet the pope. When Archbishop Gregory and his group were announced, he led the three members of the pilgrimage onto the stage, along with his sister, Elaine Swenson, and introduced each one to the pontiff.
Goeden genuflected and kissed the pope’s ring; she remembers telling him it was an honor to meet him and that she too was of German heritage.
“You get up there on stage and you don’t know what to say. It’s something I’ll remember my entire life,” she said, back in Peachtree City but not back down to earth.
“I tend to be a very spiritual person,” she continued. “To have something like this happen—it was unbelievable, so hard to describe—you have so many emotions. The pope was just the highlight of my life on my spiritual journey. It was absolutely beautiful.”
Goeden, who had seen and heard Pope John Paul II speak from a distance on a previous trip, was struck by Pope Benedict’s compassion and humility, and as she studied his deep, expressive eyes, she was reminded of her deceased brother-in-law who was a Franciscan Capuchin.
“(The pope) was beautiful in being both such a humble, humble person, and you could just tell how caring he was and how he listened to all those people coming up to meet him,” she reflected. He had a deeply spiritual aura.
She felt this meeting was a tremendous blessing and one more reason for deep gratitude to God.
“God really works in your life, and I’ve been so privileged with my different experiences in life … He’s blessed me tremendously and my family. God inspires us, and we have to inspire other people and share the talents God gives us with other people.”
While her husband didn’t receive the personal introduction, he was awed as he heard the pope speak at the pallium Mass and general audience.
“He had such a warm personality. The human side of him was very warm and caring,” Herbert Goeden said.
Another highlight for him was visiting the Church of St. Legontian in Lanciano where in the 8th century A.D. a Basilian monk who doubted the reality of transubstantiation was celebrating Mass and the host turned into flesh and the wine into blood. In recent decades scientists have determined that the flesh and blood reserved there are human blood and heart tissue. The visit deepened Herbert Goeden’s belief in the Eucharist.
“One day as he was saying Mass the host turned into flesh and wine turned into blood. From a Catholic point of view, it’s just mind-boggling,” he said.
The whole trip was a deeply spiritual experience for the Goedens, as they prayed often and talked with the clergy and lay pilgrims.
“It was a very fruitful pilgrimage. You just kept alert all the time and listened. At times it was quite stressful, but a pilgrimage isn’t like a regular tour. We prayed a lot as we went from city to city. Priests would lead the rosary. It was very, very spiritual,” said Barbara Goeden.
Deacon Lee was introduced to the pope by Archbishop Gregory as one of the archdiocese’s permanent deacons. He extended greetings from his parish, from the black Catholic clergy of the archdiocese, and from all the people of the archdiocese. The pope nodded and thanked him.
“It was awesome to say the least. It was an experience of a lifetime,” Deacon Lee said. “I was just overjoyed and elated. It was a most marvelous feeling to be in his presence and speak directly to him—you’re just overwhelmed to be in his presence. To be in the room is one thing, but to be in front of him and touch him and conversing with him, it’s something I never thought I’d be able to do.”
The entire trip, which was a gift to Deacon Lee from a St. Paul of the Cross parishioner, was a thrilling experience for him, from looking up at Michelangelo’s paintings on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, to traveling along the seacoast, to savoring Roman architecture.
He had the thrill of assisting at Mass in a small chapel beneath the basilica at the tomb of St. Peter and at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi.
“Every time I think about it all day long I say, ‘Wow!’ It will truly have a lifelong impact on my work as a deacon,” he said. “Every church we went to was a different experience, every religious site we went to was a different experience. It was an opportunity of a lifetime. It was just overwhelming. I’m right there at the tomb of St. Peter and surrounded by tombs of other popes.”
He felt it was a remarkably loving and kind group of pilgrims and was deeply touched by the humility of Archbishop Gregory, who thanked them all for coming and sharing in his experience and who was truly present with them as part of his spiritual family.
“He’s a marvelous person. I can’t say enough about his presence among us, how he related to our people and the special kind of grace that seems to emanate from him when he’s around. It was just one of those special moments in one’s life.”
Massaroni was also grateful for the loving support he received from other pilgrims, as he has knee problems and had some difficulty with the extensive walking in hot weather. Fortunately, this 77-year-old Italian-American speaks Italian and at restaurants was able to translate for other pilgrims and return the favor.
“This trip was something extraordinary for me, and the people on this were so good to me. They were like angels guarding over me,” he said. “It’s hard for me to walk … almost all the 72 people helped me to walk here and walk there. It was a pilgrimage—hot sun, hard walking, but it was still the greatest thing in my life.”
His wife passed away on July 1, 2004, and he felt on this trip one year after her death that as traveling lifts his spirits she wanted him to be there and was watching over him, especially when he was randomly selected to meet the pope. He asked Father Tom Hennessy to celebrate Mass in her memory.
Recalling his wife’s death “was hard, especially on the first day, especially on July 1,” he said. “I think when our names were drawn out of a hat, my wife reached in and picked my number out, and I think that’s how I got to meet the pope. I felt good, I felt she was watching over me too … The whole trip was beautiful.”
Massaroni recalled how he was the last from the Atlanta group to be introduced by Archbishop Gregory. But Pope Benedict didn’t seem to grow weary, and Massaroni truly experienced meeting Christ’s vicar on earth.
“I can’t kneel. I reached for his hand and kissed his ring and asked him to bless me. When you get face to face with someone like that, it’s something out of this world. It’s the best thing that’s happened in my life.”