"Big Four" Highlights


New York Couple Meets the Pope

Knight and his wife give witness talk at Festival of Families

It was a once in a lifetime experience for Rudy and Leona Gonzales, to stand before Pope Francis in Philadelphia and tell their family’s story. They were chosen for this privilege at the Festival of Families, held Sept. 27, because of their strong Catholic faith; their long years of marriage; their experience as parents, grandparents and great-grandparents; their careers as educators, and their connection to Native American culture.

“It was almost indescribable, facing the Vicar of Christ,” said Rudy, 81, of meeting the pope. “It’s almost like seeing the face of God. There’s an aura you feel around him, and his face just lights up with joy when he meets you.”

Rudy is a past grand knight of Our Lady of Fatima Shrine Council 14622 in Lewiston, N.Y., near Niagara Falls, where the couple lives in retirement on the Tuscacora Reservation.

Rudy Gonzales looks on as his wife, Leona, addresses Pope Francis during Festival of Families in Philadelphia.

His wife said, “The Holy Father was so warm and congenial. He has a special gift of making people feel at ease around him. It was a gift for us to be there with him, speaking a few feet from him. There was a great excitement for all of us spiritually.”

The Festival of Families was an evening event, held as part of the World Meeting of Families that was hosted by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from Sept. 22-27. Many thousands of people attended the festival, from all across the United States and from overseas, along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, where the Holy Father offered Sunday Mass the next day.

Rudy and Leona Gonzales attended the festival with two of their five grown children and two of their 10 grandchildren. They also have two great-grandchildren. Leona read the couple’s statement for the Holy Father because Rudy, who suffers from Parkinson’s, was afraid his voice might give out if he spoke. They were one of eight families from different walks of life chosen to give a testimony before the pope.

Leona spoke about their upbringing, their marriage of 54 years, their children, and the importance of family ties. Rudy was born in Chicago to Hispanic parents and Leona was raised on an Indian reservation in Western New York. They met and married in Arizona, and became longtime educators in reservation schools.

Leona said to the Holy Father, “Our faith, our belief in the existence of our Creator, our God, has pulled us through many difficult times during our life together. Through the love of God and of God’s Church, our faith and determination becomes stronger each and every day.

“Throughout our lifetime, we have had to overcome many rough moments, and we are far from the ideal family, but by the grace of God, through the sacraments, and with the help of the saints, especially Kateri Tekakwitha, we have made it this far and we continue to care for our family and pass on the wisdom of grandparents.”

After embracing the pope, Leona gave him an eagle’s feather, a Native American sign of a brave warrior. “You are a warrior for our holy Mother Church,” she explained. Pope Francis gave Rudy and Leona blessed rosary beads.

“These we will cherish for the rest of our life,” Rudy said.