When Geri “Nana” Fotsch opened her email and saw an invitation from the office of Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, inviting her to attend an evening prayer service Sept. 24 with Pope Francis at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, she didn’t want to go.
“I’m kind of a stubborn old goat and I said, ‘No, I’m not going and I will thank them very much and somebody else can go who’s more deserving than I am,’” Fotsch said.
The reason she didn’t want to go? The service was being held on the same day as her eye doctor appointment.
“I’ve been having trouble with my eyes,” said Fotsch, a widowed mother of eight, grandmother of 30 and great-grandmother of four, and a member of St. Mary’s Visitation Parish, Elm Grove.
When her daughter Dr. Colleen Lawton, vice-chair, Department of Radiation Oncology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and also a member of St. Jerome, Oconomowoc, heard her mother’s reason for not wanting to go, she pulled some strings.
“She told me she had an eye appointment,” Lawton said. “I’m like, ‘Mom, I’ll change the doctor appointment; it’s not rocket science.’”
Lawton was in New York City the weekend of Sept. 18-20 to celebrate her husband’s birthday with some of their children. When Cardinal Dolan heard they were in town, he invited them for brunch at his residence after the 10:15 a.m. Mass on Sept. 20.
The Lawton family is close to Cardinal Dolan because their children went to school with Cardinal Dolan’s nieces at Catholic Memorial High School, Waukesha.
“The guy is just crazy wonderful,” Lawton said of Cardinal Dolan, adding he was pushing for some of them to come back the next week for Pope Francis’ visit.
“He’s explaining, ‘I really want Nana to get as close to the Holy Father as possible,’” she said.
When Lawton returned from New York, she moved Fotsch’s appointment up a few days and the two of them traveled to the Big Apple and stayed at a hotel near St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
“I’m very protective of my mom,” Lawton said of her decision to make the second trip to New York. “I wasn’t thinking so much about meeting the pope, quite frankly, I was thinking about making sure my mom was in good hands.”
At 83 years old, Fotsch walks well, but for an event this big, Lawton was worried about getting her through the crowds. Aspart of the initial invitation from Cardinal Dolan, mother and daughter attended a small reception behind the cathedral before the service.
“We walked in kind of a back door, side door, from that event that was a have-a-soda-and-cookie kind of thing,” Lawton said. “It was really nice because we didn’t have to manage the huge crowds.”
It was a ticketed event and neither of them knew where they were going to be seated for the prayer service until they were escorted to their seats.
“When we walked into the church, in the cathedral, I had no idea where we were going to be seated and we’re in the first row,” Fotsch said. “In other words, between us and the altar, there was nothing but the steps going up to the altar … I thought, ‘Holy cow, I don’t get this, but I’m taking it.’”
Lawton was also surprised by their placement.
“Once we were seated, my mom and I were like, ‘Wow, these are nice seats,’” Lawton said.
Their location was better than some of the dignitaries who were in attendance.
“Henry Kissinger (the 56th U.S. Secretary of State from 1973 to 1977, serving Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize winner) was sitting in back of us,” Fotsch said.
Cardinal Dolan had a feeling Pope Francis would walk by them.
“He was pretty sure the Holy Father would greet the disabled who are on the left-hand side and then come past us because he had to get his vestments on for vespers,” Lawton said.
Then the crowd began to cheer. Pope Francis had arrived and walked into the cathedral.
“Even (journalists) Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie, who are there hosting the pre-vespers program, they have their phones out taking pictures,” Lawton said. “Your heart starts racing and you think, ‘Oh my gosh, here he is.”
Pope Francis was waving, shaking hands and blessing the crowd as he made his way through the cathedral. Cardinal Dolan’s prediction was correct as Pope Francis shook the hands of everyone in the front row on the left side of the aisle before walking over to where Fotsch and Lawton were sitting.
“He went right in front of us and started shaking hands and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to shake the pope’s hand,’” Fotsch said.
Lawton was the first to greet Pope Francis.
“He shakes my hand and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve just shaken the hand of the pope, and more importantly my mother is going to meet him,’” Lawton said.
Fotsch wasn’t born Catholic; she converted before she married her late husband, William.
“She always says, and I think it’s very true, that converts, their faith is even stronger because it wasn’t given to them at birth,” Lawton said.
As her daughter was shaking Pope Francis’ hand, Fotsch was thinking about what she would do.
“When I meet people on a social basis, they extend their hands and I always say, ‘I don’t do that,’ and I give them a hug. I’m a hugger,” Fotsch said. “I thought, I want to hug the pope, but (U.S.) Secret Service will probably flatten me.”
After he finished shaking Lawton’s hand, Pope Francis moved to Fotsch.
“He got up to me and I shook his hand. Then I put my hands on his shoulders and I said, ‘May I give you a hug?’ And then I thought, no, no, just give him a hug because Secret Service, they will really flatten me if there’s a hesitation,” Fotsch said. “I stepped back and I took his hand and I said, ‘Your Holiness, this is a dream come true,’ and he looks me right in the eye … he is looking at nobody else.”
Pope Francis heard Fotsch and responded.
“He came really close and said, ‘Me too,’” Fotsch said. “That was my 20 seconds with the pope.”
Lawton was happy her mother shared a private moment with Pope Francis.
“After she had her interchange with the Holy Father, she sits down and goes, ‘Well, I’m ready to go,’” Lawton said. “I’m like, holy mackerel, Mom, no. This is wonderful; you’re not ready to go. You’re ready to stay.’ It was that kind of a moment.”
While the exchange between Fotsch and Pope Francis was happening, Cardinal Dolan, who got them the seats, had his own moment.
“After I hugged the pope, Cardinal Dolan was right next to (Pope Francis) and Cardinal Dolan looked at me and said, ‘You never hug me.’ So, of course, I hugged him,” Fotsch said.
Days later, Fotsch is still in disbelief about her interaction with Pope Francis.
“How does an old Nana from Wisconsin deserve this? I don’t know. I just don’t know,” Fotsch said.
It was a moment they won’t forget, but it’s one they have trouble explaining to others.
“As my mom says, there are no superlatives to describe shaking his hand, looking into his eyes,” Lawton said. “He says, ‘Pray for me,’ and he meant it.”
This up-close view of Pope Francis has changed the way Lawton prays, she said.
“He says, ‘Please remember,’ those are his parting words, ‘Please remember to pray for me,’” Lawton said. “I pray for him every day now.”
The next day, Lawton and Fotsch attended Mass at Madison Square Garden and were seated in the second row, again courtesy of Cardinal Dolan.
“This Holy Father is so real and so touchable and so humble and is all about the poor,” Lawton said. “Everyone loves him and if we could all just pick up a little piece of the kindness that he shows for humanity, the world would be a completely different place.”
Since returning home, Lawton said even people who aren’t Catholic are interested in what she experienced.
“Everybody wants to touch me,” Lawton said, adding she gets asked if she’s washed the hand Pope Francis shook. “I’m a physician; I’ve washed my hands a few times.”