Walsh University students invite Pope Francis to dinner

A group of Walsh University students studying in Rome eagerly are awaiting a response from Pope Francis about a dinner invitation.

On Wednesday — the same day the pope was named as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” — the group of students, along with university faculty and staff, handed him a handmade pink, heart-shaped card while in the general audience at St. Peter’s Square. The card, signed on the front by the 14 students and three faculty members in the Rome study program, included an invitation to dinner at their residence in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, also the home of the pope’s summer residence.

“We got there very, very early — at 6 a.m. — in order to get a good spot where we knew the motorcade would pass by,” said Michael Cinson, director of student life at Walsh’s Rome Campus. “The pope stopped in front of us, and one of his guards saw our sign. He asked if we wanted to give it to the pope, and we did.”

The two students who designed the card — Kathleen Wagner, 22, of Akron, and Giovonna Rion, 21, of Dover — said their hope was that Pope Francis would at least get a glimpse of it. On Tuesday night, they ramped up their ambition for their poster board sign.

“I looked at Katie and said, ‘I’m going to give this to Pope Francis.’ We decided to attach the letter inviting him to dinner, just in case,” said Rion, a graduate of Tuscarawas Central Catholic High School and, like Wagner, a student studying early childhood intervention. “It was almost unbelievable. One of his security men looked at it to make sure it was safe. He handed it back to me and I actually had the opportunity to give it to [Pope Francis].

“His reaction was amazing. He was smiling and actually read it.”

Rion and Wagner said they were standing in the second row behind a barricade. They added they are thankful to the people standing in front of them for allowing them to move forward when the Popemobile stopped near them.

“He stopped to kiss a baby, and we asked if we could get up there to give him the card. It was incredible to see him read it. He had such a big smile on his face, and he looked directly at us,” said Wagner, a graduate of Our Lady of the Elms High School. “He was so happy and genuine. After we gave him the card, Giovonna and I gave each other the biggest hug, and some of the other students in our group were in tears. You could feel the positive energy.”

In the letter, Wagner and Rion invite Pope Francis to join them for dinner on the Walsh campus in Italy before they depart next week. The students in the eight-week global learning program left for study in Rome on Oct. 25 and will return to North Canton on Dec. 20.

The letter to the pope included contact information for Rion.

“My phone is sitting on the table in the middle of the student lounge and everybody’s watching it,” Rion said.

Wagner added: “I hope that he contacts us in some way. It would be amazing if we even get a chance to talk to him, but it would be so awesome to meet him and have dinner with him.”

Colette Jenkins can be reached at 330-996-3731 or cjenkins@thebeaconjournal.com. She can be followed at www.twitter.com/ColetteMJenkins.