A fall-break trip to Italy earlier this month left a 12-year-old Ahwatukee girl with a lifelong memory that wowed her classmates as well as parishioners at St. Benedict Catholic Church.
Melanie Mlecko got to ride with the Pope.
She tooled around Vatican Square with two other children in the Popemobile for about 20 minutes as fellow passenger Pope Francis waved to a crowd of close to 80,000 people.
And if that wasn’t enough of a thrill for Melanie, a seventh-grader at St. Mary Basha Catholic School in Chandler, the Pope also gave her a singularly special surprise: She was the only one of the trio of youngsters that he patted on the head.
That gesture profoundly affected Melanie, her brother Tyler and her parents, Tammy and Ray Mlecko.
That’s because the man who helped the Mleckos set up their trip to the Vatican in the first place – their parish pastor, Father Bob Binta, who passed away in August after a valiant battle with cancer – did the same thing whenever he saw Melanie at mass at St. Benedict’s – the Ahwatukee church where the Mleckos are parishioners.
“He always patted me on the head,” Melanie said. “I kind of felt like he was there with me when the Pope did that.”
Father Binta’s death had “left a huge hole in our hearts as well as a huge hole in St. Benedict’s parish,” Tammy said. “I was saddened that we were not going to be able to share this with him when we returned from our trip.
“When I saw the Pope pat Melanie on the head, I had goosebumps,” she added. “I knew he had to be there.”
Melanie, like her mother, credits “Father Bob” for the entire interaction – particularly because he had arranged through the Phoenix Diocese in February to have four tickets waiting for the Mleckos so they could get admission to the fenced-off area of Vatican Square where up to 80,000 people gather on Wednesdays and Sundays to see the Pope greet visitors from the Popemobile.
The ticketed throngs started lining up before sunrise for that appearance, and the Mleckos considered themselves fortunate to find good seats – center aisle, row 6 – in front of the stage where the Pope first makes his appearance.
Tammy had told Melanie and Tyler, a student at Brophy College Prep, to run up to the fence to get a better view.
Melanie said she and Tyler were watching through the fence for the Pope to appear when a security guard started surveying the crowd, looking for a few children to ride with the pope
Suddenly, a guard pointed at her and gestured to Tyler to pick her up and hoist her over the fence to his waiting arms.
“I stood on a chair to take pictures as he stopped almost in front of our section,” their mom recalled. “He started to bless and kiss a few of the children and I couldn’t believe I was this close, taking pictures of the Pope. Then the next child I see him blessing is my daughter through the camera lens.
“I just about freaked out, wondering how did she get up there and is that really Melanie? I was taking pictures as fast as I could to hopefully get at least one good shot. The next thing I know, she sits down in the Popemobile and they are off.”
“I looked at my husband and asked, ‘Where is she going?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ Then I asked him, ‘How are we going to get her back?’ There were so many people in that crowd.”
As the Mleckos marveled at their daughter’s luck but worried about how they’d find her, Melanie was almost speechless as she rode around for 20 minutes or so with the Pope in his Skoda Rapid, a car manufactured by an Irish automobile company.
“I was surprised when they pointed at me,” she said, recalling how the Pope said something to her, “but I didn’t understand him because it was a language I didn’t know.”
As she sat in the car and watched him wave to the sea of people, she started talking to a boy sitting next to her – and at first, she didn’t understand him either.
“I think he was from Rome and when I told him I didn’t speak Italian, he started talking to me in English.”
When the ride was over, Melanie had the same worry that her mother had when she was first picked: “I didn’t know how I’d find my family again.”
But, “somehow they knew exactly where my brother was and the guard just picked me up and handed me over to him over the fence.”
The whirlwind continued when Melanie got back home.
First, at mass at St. Benedicts on Sunday, Oct. 14, the deacon after his closing prayer told the assembled worshippers something special had happened to their young fellow parishioner.
“You could just hear the old audience erupt,” Tammy said. “A lot of people came up to us after mass and were asking us all about it.”
Once she got back to school last week, the astonished reactions continued.
Her mother went to the office and the stunned employees at St. Mary Basha told Melanie not to say anything until one of the local priests could tell the entire body of some 900 students when they assembled for their weekly Children’s Mass Oct. 19 – the same day she was scheduled to tell her social studies class about her encounter.
“I had to keep it a secret,” Melanie said.
And she did – even after one of her best friends inadvertently saw a picture of her with the Pope. “She said, ‘wow,’ but I told her not to say anything. She didn’t.”
Once the students heard about it at mass, “Everybody was saying like ‘wow. That’s so cool,’” Melanie said.
And in class that awe continued. “They were asking how did I get picked? What did I eat?”
Tammy said she’ll always remember how Melanie “was just glowing” after the Pope dropped her off.
Once they were reunited, she said, “I said to her, ‘Do you realize what happened, how lucky you were?’ She said, ‘It was just kind of weird, mom.’”
And Tammy will also be grateful to Father Binta.
“It breaks my heart that we couldn’t tell him about” the encounter, she said, “but I know this wasn’t just a coincidence.
“We know that there is no way any of this would’ve been possible without Father Bob’s intervention from heaven,” she continued, explaining that when she had arranged for the Vatican Square appearance – one of two the Pope does weekly – she had “felt a strong urge to write something in the book of intentions they had in the office” at the Vatican.
“I wrote, ‘For Father Bob Binta, who arranged this meeting for the Mlecko family – we are forever grateful to you. May you rest in peace.’”