Three local individuals who received the opportunity to visit Pope Francis last week said they can hardly put the experience into words, as they’re still in a state of amazement.
Thanks to the personal invitations received from Reps. Lynn Jenkins and Tim Huelskamp, both R-Kan., Fort Hays State University President Mirta M. Martin made the trip with J. Basil Dannebohm, chairman of the board of directors for the Emerald Foundation.
Donetta Robben of Divine Mercy Radio also received an invitation. She joined Martin and Dannebohm on the flight, but for the most part, traveled separately alongside her husband.
It was a rather speedy trip. The three left for Washington, D.C., Wednesday, Sept. 23, and returned home late Thursday night.
“The city itself was pretty much shut down and the police were visible everywhere and anywhere,” Martin said.
After receiving very little sleep due to anticipation, they arrived at the Capitol at approximately 4:30 a.m. Thursday.
“The other two were in a sitting section that was closer,” Robben said of Martin and Dannebohm. “My husband and I were behind them in a standing section, but we were still fairly close.”
Martin and Dannebohm were positioned front and center, right below where the pope would address the large crowd patiently awaiting his arrival.
“We were seated on the west terrace,” Dannebohm said. “We were directly outside the doors of the Capitol right there in the front row.”
Once everyone was in their designated areas, all that was left to do was wait.
“We were up at 3 a.m. and standing in line from 4:45 to 11 a.m., and we just had this little space to stand,” Robben said. “Being older, your legs are aching, your back is aching, but as soon as he came out on the balcony, all of my aches went away.”
When the pope finally appeared before the crowd, Martin, Dannebohm and Robben said it was indescribable; no words could express what they felt in that moment.
“I’ve never in my life, ever, felt what I felt,” Martin said. “It was as though every single molecule had been energized with hope, faith and excitement.”
As Pope Francis delivered his message, the three couldn’t help but notice the many around them weeping to his every word.
“There were a lot of people crying — myself included. I’m not ashamed to say it,” Dannebohm said.
The crowd began to chant, “Papa, papa, papa,” which in Spanish means pope, and also father, Martin said.
“There were rabbis weeping, women dressed in full Muslim attire weeping,” she said. “I don’t think there was a dry eye when he came out.”
The pope’s words formulated a universal message of hope, peace and love, according to Martin.
“His message told us to be humble, merciful, compassionate, caring and loving, regardless of religion, gender or social stratification,” she said. “He reminded us we have a duty, responsibility and privilege to care for those who can’t care for themselves.”
Walking away from the experience, Martin, Dannebohm and Robben all agreed they were different now, changed by the impacting experience.
Robben said it made her want to be a better person and practice all Pope Francis taught her.
“I came home and printed his speeches and homilies,” she said. “I’m ready to dive into them.”
For Dannebohm, it was more than just a Catholic experience; it was a universal experience.
“You come away transformed,” he said. “When you’re in Francis’ presence, you come away almost transfigured.”
Martin said she returned to Hays feeling a sense of completeness and readiness to continue her journey at FHSU, with her family.
“It was a message I needed — a message of reaffirmation,” she said. “I would have loved to have touched him, but I feel that I did.
“That’s how charged the air was. I feel that I did.”