It was the chance encounter of a lifetime for two young Corpus Christi Catholic Church (Shiloh) parishioners.
Anthony and Bobby Rizzo were among 45 students from the St. Louis University High School band, along with 12 adult chaperones, who went to Italy for a musical tour March 9-16, in commemoration of the school’s bicentennial year.
While playing in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican on March 14, they caught the attention of Pope Francis, who just happened to driving by in his Popemobile.
The pope listened to their performance and greeted the band members afterward.
According to Jeff Pottinger, SLUH’s band director, “The boys could hardly play they were so surprised. Words cannot express the power and impact of our spontaneous meeting. You could truly sense the Holy Sp
irit in the moment and Pope Francis’ humility, generosity and his passion for Our Lord. He was so gracious and present for the boys.”
For the Rizzo brothers, the trip was the time of their lives.
“Each day was better than the last and each day they would say, ‘I don’t know how we are going to beat today, it was great,’” said their mother Christina, one of the chaperones.
But after meeting the pope, Anthony and Bobby both said “This beats all the days!”
Said Anthony: “I’ve just peaked in life, nothing can be better than this.” After shaking hands with the pope, Bobby said: “I’m never going to wash my hands. This is the best day of my life.”
Christine Rizzo said that watching the pope listening to the band then take time to shake their hands brought tears to her eyes.
“It was an incredibly moving and inspiring moment,” she said. “My husband and I are extremely blessed that the band director, Mr. Pottinger, invited parents to join their spring break trip. From the band performing at Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica at the Chair of St. Peter, having Mass in the catacombs, seeing the Coliseum, performing a benefit concert at St. Paul Behind the Walls, listening to all the boys say the Prayer of Generosity at the tomb of St. Ignatius, listening to the band performing in Assisi at St Francis Basilica, and visiting Pompeii and other wonderful sites and churches, and then meeting the Holy Father, it was unforgettable.”
Pottinger, the band director, added: “Yes it seems like we did a lot. We did. Every moment was amazing and will forever be one of our best memories.
Pottinger added: “The Pope and I had a short conversation, with him grinning and me saying grazie over and over. I told him about our Jesuit high school and our 200th birthday. He said the boys were great and the music was beautiful, and he asked me to pray for him. Then he shook many of the boys’ hands, a few of whom took selfies with him, and then he rode away in the Popemobile.”
Their experience was punctuated by meeting with Greg Burke, a 1978 graduate of SLUH and Director of the Holy See Press Office, at the Vatican. “He shared many wonderful insights and faith-filled, inspiring words about his path from SLUH to Time Magazine, Fox News and the Vatican,” said Pottinger.
“It was an exceptional conversation and very generous of him to meet with us.”