Frank and Robin Busalacchi raised their family in Brookfield as members of St. Dominic Parish, before relocating to downtown Milwaukee. Frank is the retired former Secretary of Transportation for the State of Wisconsin, as well as was construction chair for Miller Park, chair of Milwaukee World Festivals and head of Teamsters Local #200. He is a regular at Old St. Mary’s 7 a.m. daily Mass. Robin was a stay at home mom who did communication consulting on the side, as well as was executive director of the Elmbrook Education Foundation and later ran events for the Ronald McDonald House.

Pope Francis arrives and greets pilgrims at the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima. Among the throng of media and pilgrims are Frank and Robin Busalacchi, former parishioners at St. Dominic Parish and current members of Old St. Mary Parish in downtown Milwaukee. (Robin Busalacchi photos)

Most recently, and for the second time, they have given up their home, put their much-culled belongings in storage and are traveling the world. While on a three-week vacation to Portugal, plans changed when they received a letter from Santuario de Fatima that they were approved for media credentials to visit Fatima with the pope this past weekend, exclusively for the Catholic Herald. Enjoy their journey.

May 8, 2017 — My husband Frank and I are enjoying a wonderful three-week stay in beautiful Lisbon, Portugal. It’s a colorful city with much history, great food and friendly people.

Just prior to our leaving, I saw that Fatima (80 miles away) was celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Blessed Mother’s appearance to three children. I was elated when I discovered that Pope Francis was coming to celebrate the centenary, as well as to canonize two of the children — while we were in Portugal!
I knew Frank and I needed to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.

The online site for the Papal visit was confusing. There seemed to be no tickets, and anyone who wanted to go just had to show up. That would no doubt be a madhouse, as they were expecting over one million people. Time to try another route. The Fatima website provided an option for press passes. I submitted the required information and then we waited. And waited.

May 10, 2017 — It’s two days before the pope’s visit. I’m thinking that our pilgrimage is not meant to be. This afternoon, I receive an email from Santuario de Fatima!
Temos a alegria de lhe comunicar que o seu pedido de acreditação foi autorizado…
Google Translated:
“Dear ROBIN AND FRANK BUSALACCHI We are pleased to inform you that your application for accreditation has been authorized …

Wow! We immediately rush to secure bus tickets. Leave early Friday afternoon to witness the pope’s arrival and return Saturday afternoon after the Papal Mass. At this late date, no hotels were available so we planned to sleep in some corner or pull an all-nighter. I asked Frank if he was up for it. “Are you kidding? This is better than box seats for the seventh game of the World Series!”

Priests distributed Communion to the faithful at the anniversary celebration in Fatima. A statue commemorates the apparitions of St. Francisco de Jesus Marto and his sister, St. Jacinta de Jesus Marto.

May 12, 2017 —  8 a.m. Frank is like a kid on Christmas morning. He blinks the lights on and off, “We’re going to see the pope today!” We pack jam sandwiches, some hardboiled eggs and water, unsure of what to expect in the next 30 hours. A million people? What does that even look like? How close do you think we will we get?  We agree — whatever happens, this is going to be phenomenal.

1 p.m. The Lisbon bus station is orderly and not unreasonably busy.  Our comfy coach bus carries a mingling of ages and nationalities. We pass miles of parked cars as we near Fatima but there are no delays.

3 p.m. The bus drops us off two blocks from the shrine. People are lining the streets in anticipation of the motorcade. Tents are pitched in fields outside the venue.  We follow signs to an adjacent building, pass the crowded Clergy Accreditation line and arrive at the Media Accredidation room. As we retrieve our press passes,  the staff gives us directions to a dedicated press area and offers us coupons for a two-day press-only meal package (Cooked warm food? Goodbye jam sandwiches!).

The sea of pilgrims at Fatima (above) receive Communion from an ocean of priests. The Pilgrim Statue of Our Lady of Fatima is processed in as a giant rosary inspires the faithful. (Robin Busalacchi photos)

3:30 p.m. From the sparsely populated outer square, we turn the corner and come upon a wall of humanity. The shrine arena holds roughly 500,000. The crowd is overflowing along the perimeters and into the streets. There’s a festival atmosphere: people singing, praying and stubbornly staking a claim to their spots. We struggle to push our way through the unwavering throng to the far end of the venue.

4:15 p.m. Frank and I finally arrive at the pressroom. It’s a beehive of activity, but there are chairs, couches, Internet and room to breathe. We walk outside to find a spot. The press area is spacious with many open, unobstructed views, isolated from the masses pressed up against the fences like sardines. With the Church as a backdrop, in a word, this area is heaven.

5:10 p.m. It’s hard to describe how we feel looking out over this flock of half-a-million fellow Christians, all awaiting the arrival of our beloved spiritual leader. Cheers erupt as the pope’s helicopter flies over, and as his approaching motorcade is viewed on the jumbo-trons.

5:35 p.m. The crowd enthusiastically explodes when “Papa Francisco” enters the arena in the Popemobile. The excitement is electrifying, and we can’t believe we are part of this mass euphoria. The noise is deafening as he passes through the crowd to the Chapel of Apparitions. Then, something truly unpredictable happens. The moment the pope kneels before the statue of the Blessed Mother, the crowd goes completely silent.

Pope Francis has such a deep devotion to Mary and, although we are far away, we can feel it. He places the traditional golden rose at the base of the statue.

The volume rises when the pope does. He prays with the crowd, who sing back their response. We don’t understand Portuguese, but recognize the homage to Mary, “Ave O dulcis Virgo Maria” and “Salve Regina Rosarii Fatimae.”  In prayer, he urges the faithful to follow in the footsteps of the young shepherds and spread peace, even in times of war. “We will tear down all walls and cross every frontier, as we go out to every periphery, to make known God’s justice and peace.”

Back in the Popemobile, the pilgrims applaud and wave as Pope Francis exits — so much spirituality and so much joy.

9:30 p.m. We thought what we experienced this afternoon could never be eclipsed. We were wrong.

Close your eyes and imagine a giant glowing rosary enveloped in a sea of several thousand candles flickering in the moonlight. You are standing shoulder to shoulder with fellow believers and the smell of burning candle wax permeates the crisp night air. And then, you listen.  The soothing voice of our pope conveys a message of mercy and forgiveness. He explains the importance of a relationship with Mary, which will lead us closer to Jesus.The pope sits facing her statue, and the rosary begins. Various individuals recite the decades in 10 different languages. It is a magical night, clearly illustrating that although we are many and different, here we are united as one.

Prayers and Masses continue throughout the night. The air is getting colder. Thankfully for us, the pressroom is open all night. We grab, and share, a couch and try to get some rest.

May 13, 2017 — 6:15 a.m. The sun is just beginning to rise. The temperature is in the low 40s and the arena is still half full. I truly admire the devotion and perseverance of those who stayed through the night. Seeing them, it’s incredibly ungracious to find fault with the pressroom’s bright fluorescent lighting and our pretzel-like jockeying for comfort. Frank and I inside, were fortunate to get some snug, uninterrupted sleep.

I set up our spot, and return inside to warm up.

Bishops ascend the stairs for the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the apparitions at Fatima. (Robin Busalacchi photo)

9:15 a.m. The arena is full and the sun is warming things up. The choir sings as the Blessed Virgin statue is carried through the jubilant crowd to the outdoor altar in front of the basilica. She is preceded by a parade of white-robed bishops, who take their seats.

10 a.m. Pope Francis is escorted down the steps from the basilica to the altar. He begins the Rite of Canonization. What an honor and privilege it is to witness the proclamation of Christianity’s two newest saints, Blessed Jacinta and Francisco Marto.
Although it’s in Portuguese, when the “regular” Mass begins, we are able to grasp what’s happening. The cantor is a nun with the voice of an angel. The intentions, like the rosary the night before, are done in various languages.

Frank and I wonder how and if Communion could be distributed to so many people. It was, and how they did it was pretty slick. First, dozens of priests lined up, exited a side door, and then each returned with a chalice. After the “Lamb of God,” young people in vestments were handed white umbrellas and paired with priests. The duos disbursed throughout the arena and shared communion with all who wished to receive.

When Mass is over, the pope observes the Adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament and then retreats to give a special blessing to the sick. Upon his return, the bishops exit the altar, and the procession of the Mary statue begins again.

The sea that is the crowd now has “white caps,” as the faithful wave white cloths while she returns to the Chapel of Apparitions. We look up and the pope is waving one, too. The sight is spectacular.

When Mary is “home,” the pope quietly and without fanfare, leaves the altar. We are not surprised. This pope, who we so adore, is a humble man. He wants us to realize that this day (or the last two days) is not about him.

It is about two, faith-filled children who saw the Mother of Heaven. It’s about Mary, who came to remind us that “God’s light dwells within us and protects us.” Finally, it’s about all of us, “rediscovering the young and beautiful face of the Church, which shines forth when she is welcoming, free, faithful, poor in means and rich in love.”