A family from St. Stephen Parish on Grand Island got to meet Pope Francis in Philadelphia for the pope's first-ever visit to the United States in September. Mary and Marty Bobak meet Pope Francis and watched as he gave a blessing and kiss on the forehead to their youngest daughter.
The Bobaks, who have 10 children, had planned to go to Philadelphia to see their oldest daughter, Melanie, her husband, Josh, and eight of their grandchildren. Melanie and Josh received tickets to attend the papal Mass at the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul since Josh works there. They invited Melanie's parents and two of her siblings, John Paul and Mary Clare.
"We had planned on going down there, anyway, because she was there and we knew the pope was going to be there," Mary said. "Two days before we left, her husband had gotten tickets to the private Mass on Saturday in the basilica. It was mostly for priests and religious. They had some lay faithful, too, in the chapel that was connected to the church."
The Bobak family has always had a strong connection to the Catholic faith. Their son John Paul was named in honor of St. John Paul II. The Bobaks arrived late in Philadelphia because they left directly from a soccer game in which John Paul, who attends Canisius High School in Buffalo, was playing.
The four Bobaks arrived in Philadelphia at around midnight on Sept. 26. They had to make accommodations for 13-year-old Mary Clare, who has autism and uses a wheelchair.
"They had closed all the city down," Mary said. "My daughter told us we should get a hotel room because we had to be up at 5 a.m. at this other hotel for security reasons. We couldn't get into the city. It was already blocked and there was no traffic. By the grace of God, my husband saw this transport van that was coming from the airport. He said, 'I bet they know how to get around the city to a hotel.'"
The Bobaks got up at dawn for the Mass. After going through security and getting everyone seated in the pew, they learned Pope Francis had not yet arrived. The family could tell, based on the sounds of crowds cheering outside the church, when the pope arrived. Since they were in the side chapel of the church, they watched the Mass on a large TV screen.
"Mary Clare was one of the kids in the front of the basilica who were in a wheelchair," Marty said. "When Pope Francis was leaving after Mass, he came right up to her and gave her a kiss on the forehead and a blessing. She's autistic so she doesn't make eye contact, but she made immediate eye contact with the Holy Father. It was just a marvel to see the whole thing unfold, and then he saw Mary crying, and I got to kiss his ring. He was so sweet for the family. He touched us all."
Before Pope Francis blessed Mary Clare, he also engaged in a group hug with Melanie, Josh and their children. He gave a special blessing to the youngest grandchild, Martha. John Paul recorded the pope giving his blessing to Mary Clare before he put the camera down to shake Pope Francis' hand.
"We didn't realize how many people saw this, because there were a lot of Secret Service," Mary said. "When the Holy Father was saying Mass, you could lean over and see him, but you couldn't really see the altar. Then he decided to come out that way. He loves children, and I'm sure that was a draw. He blessed every one of us. There were so many cameras and media."
As soon as the family sat down, they had to stay in the chapel until after Pope Francis left, for security reasons. It did not take long before their phones were buzzing with messages from family members and friends who had seen all of them on television.
"Our oldest son lives in Portland, Ore., and he was the first one who responded immediately," Marty said. "(He said), 'I'm watching you on television in Portland. This is unbelievable.'"
In addition to being able to meet Pope Francis, the Bobaks also met St. John Paul II in 1993 in Denver during World Youth Day, where he blessed Marty, Mary and their six children at the time. Melanie and Josh were both blessed by St. John Paul II while they were students at the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. At only 4 years old, Mary Clare received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI in Rome.
"It was beautiful," Mary said. "Mary Clare, or any child who is handicapped, or who has autism or any disability, is extra work, but we have 10 children and she's our youngest. She's a blessing in more ways than one. I feel like she touches a lot of people. She's always happy and she's verbal. People are very much attracted to her, and I think she has been a huge blessing to our family."