Local girl's family vacation turns into chance encounter with Pope Francis

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

Amanda Kopff admits she doesn't remember the scent of Pope Francis, but she does remember being struck by his height -- she estimated he's over six feet tall -- when she had a surprise encounter with him during a recent family vacation to Rome.

Kopff also said his genuine, pleasant demeanor was something that struck her. "He seemed real lively and like he's actually enjoying what he's doing."

The 26-year-old and her three sisters went with their parents, Tom and Debbie Kopff, on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Rome in December. The Kopffs of St. Mark Parish in Affton wanted to take one more trip together before Amanda's younger sister, 22-year-old Emily, enters the School Sisters of Christ the King in Lincoln, Neb., this year.

During their vacation, the family visited many of the obligatory sites, including St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the Pantheon and more.

They also got tickets to an audience with Pope Francis. Amanda Kopff, who was born with spina bifida and uses a wheelchair, made special arrangements to be seated in an accessible area of St. Peter's Square, where the audience was held that day.

"Before the audience started, we saw him driving in the popemobile," said Kopff, who is working on her master's degree in special education at Fontbonne University. "He looked in my direction and I thought, 'That's cool enough right there.'"

At the end of the audience, Amanda Kopff and her mom were preparing to leave the wheelchair accessible area, when an usher motioned the group to move to another area. Confusion ensued, but a moment later, someone said "il Papa," and it quickly became evident that Pope Francis was going to greet the group. He went down the line, one by one, shaking everyone's hands and giving them a blessing.

"All of a sudden, he has his hand on my head and he's shaking my hand," Kopff recalled. "It was breathtaking. I can't believe it was happening." While this was going on, her mother furiously took photos on her tiny clam shell cell phone. She also kissed the pope's ring and recalled being surprised he was not more of an "ascetic figure."

Amanda Kopff said their meeting lasted but only a minute, and the two did not speak at length to one another ("I wasn't sure I would know what to say anyway," Kopff joked) other than a simple greeting. She also had two blue rosaries and a small glow-in-the-dark figure of the infant Jesus that the pope blessed for her.

Tom Kopff described the atmosphere surrounding the audience, which the pope usually holds every Wednesday, as one of "happiness and peace. It was like nothing I had experienced -- except maybe the 1999 papal Mass" during Pope John Paul II's pastoral visit to St. Louis. "It was a bit like an international festival."

Amanda Kopff said that she feels Pope Francis is "getting back to the basics of the Church. He's trying to unify us in new ways, and that's what excites me."

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