Call it the kiss of life.
Joey Masciantonio happily recalls in Philadelphia the moment his baby daughter Gianna met Pope Francis, since it almost never happened.
Just hours before the pope’s motorcade passed down Market Street in downtown Philadelphia to hundreds of thousands, Masciantonio was with his wife Kristen and their two children at their suburban home on a Saturday morning.
“We believe it was definitely a divine moment”
That’s when they got a call from a friend, Donny Asper, an FBI agent assigned to protect the pope’s route with hundreds of other security personnel, who ordered them to get downtown as soon as they could.
He obtained passes for them in order to see the pope.
The chance to see the leader of their faith was more than just a fantasy for Masciantonio and his wife, Kristen, both devout Catholics. They had long wanted their daughter Gianna to be blessed by Pope Francis, who suffers from juvenile xanthogranuloma, an exceedingly rare blood condition that affects fewer than five children per year in the U.S.
“But we didn’t actually expect that to happen,” Masciantonio told NBC News.
During his rally in downtown Philadelphia, Pope Francis kisses Gianna Masciantonio on the head. Masciantonio Family Photo
In her 15 months of life, Gianna had a brain tumour and underwent eight operations and various chemotherapy therapies at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital.
Doctors told the family she was unlikely to survive and urged her parents to embrace their baby daughter’s final months.
Masciantonio initially opposed even going to the rally due to her illness. The therapies had so damaged Gianna’s immune system that he feared her condition would only further deteriorate among the crowds.
At his wife — and doctors’ — insistence, however, the decision was made to go.
The family made it to the location near the historic James S. Byrne Courthouse on Market Street where the pope was due to pass right after his address at Independence Hall. Masciantonio says he held out Gianna as high as he could to get the attention of Philadelphia police and FBI agents, tipped off by Asper, to wave the Pope’s motorcade over. When the Pope drove by, his security head Domenico Gianni spotted Masciantonio hoisting Gianna above his head and grabbed her. He brought her to the pontiff, who lunged forward to kiss Gianna on the head and grant her his blessing.
“It was the luck of the draw,” said Masciantonio. “We believe it was definitely a divine moment.”
The euphoria of the moment would not last long, however. Gianna still had two pending chemotherapy treatments and an MRI that would show if they were working. Last week, six weeks after her encounter with the Pope, Gianna’s MRI results came back.
The scans, Masciantonio said, showed that the tumor had shrunk significantly.
“It [tumor] was basically just a blush on the screen,” he said. “It was virtually invisible.”
The family, he says, was “astonished” by the progress. Doctors told them that, although the tumor had not been completely eradicated, the prognosis was life-changing: Gianna would likely survive.
For her parents — who Masciantonio says had planned their daughter’s funeral in advance of what they thought would be her inevitable premature death — the news was otherworldly.
Some friends and family called it the “Miracle on Market Street” — attributing Gianna’s remarkable turnaround to the kiss she had received from Pope Francis.
For Masciantonio, however, the pope’s kiss was not the miracle that saved Gianna’s life or cured her.
“The kiss was God’s work, that’s for sure,” said Masciantonio. “But, the miracle was Him giving us the platform to reach those doctors who, ultimately, played a major role in saving Gianna’s life.”