(Vatican Media)

A St. Benedict family has a story to tell for generations about how its youngest member encountered Pope Francis. What makes it even more special is the connection they found between their belated pastor who helped coordinate the encounter and the pontiff himself.

Here is Ray and Tammy Mlecko’s account in their own words:

Back in February, Ray approached Fr. Bob Binta at St. Benedict’s parish in Ahwatukee, and mentioned we were going to Rome in October for our fall break with the kids. He asked Fr. Bob if there was any way that he could arrange for us to see the Pope in the general audience. Fr. Bob said he would take care of it, and before we knew it, we had received a letter from the Diocese of Phoenix that our request was granted.

Shortly-there-after we received a letter from the Bishop’s office for U.S. visitors to the Vatican that we would have tickets in our name waiting for us on October 9th to be picked up in Rome. We were ecstatic to be going and appreciative of Fr. Bob for doing this for our family. When Fr. Bob passed away on August 20th, we were all heartbroken, but we were more saddened by the fact that we couldn’t share our Vatican experience with Fr. Bob.

On the afternoon of Oct 9th, we went to pick up our tickets and receive a short orientation of what to expect. Before leaving, Tammy felt an incredible urge to write in the book of intentions that was placed on the desk in the office. Never before had she written in this book, but that afternoon wrote:

“For Father Bob Binta, who arranged this meeting for the Mlecko family — we are forever grateful. May you rest in peace.”

The following morning we awoke very early to start standing in line at 6:05 a.m. and there were already a few hundred people in line. At 7:30 a.m. the gates were opened for those to then proceed through the metal detectors. A lot of the spots along the side fence were already taken as we were told that’s the best place to view the Pope as he goes through the crowd. We ended up almost center stage row 6 so really good view of the Pope’s chair/altar.

Pope Francis greets the crowd Oct. 10 while several children, including Melanie Mlecko, a St. Benedict parishioner in Phoenix, rides along. (Vatican

The kids (Tyler, 16 and Melanie, 12) both went to the front fence area as there was a small spot so they could get a better view when he arrived. At 9:15 a.m. the Pope started to emerge in his Pope Mobile through the crowd. They stopped almost in front of us as secret service were starting to take babies and children to the Pope for his blessing. Tammy stood on a chair to capture the events on film and the next child she sees in her lens is Melanie!

CLICK CLICK CLICK! “Oh my gosh! That’s Melanie! How did she get up there?” Now she’s sitting in the Pope Mobile and they are off… “Where are they going? How will we get her back?” As she drove off, we figured she was in really good hands with 14 secret service agents and the Pope.

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As it turned out, when the Pope initially stopped to start blessing the children, the secret service came along the fence line looking for little kids. Tyler picked up Melanie and the one secret service agent picked her up over the fence and guided her to the Pope’s vehicle. She was cautiously walking up to the vehicle, just looking in awe at the Pope and smiling!

When they drove off, she was with 3 other children who were also picked and rode around the crowd of almost 80,000 people for 20 minutes. When they circled back around to the front, the agent knew exactly who to give Melanie back to and walked her to Tyler, helping her back over the fence.

We sensed Fr. Bob was there with us that morning, because how else would Melanie have been picked? We don’t think that was just a coincidence. Melanie said when the Pope gave her the final blessing before leaving his vehicle, he smiled warmly and patted her on her head. He didn’t do that with any of the other children.

Pope Francis pats Melanie Mlecko on the head Oct. 10. The late Fr. Bob Binta, Mlecko’s pastor at St. Benedict in Phoenix who helped arrange tickets for the papal audience, greeted Mlecko in a similar fashion when he was alive. (Vatican Media)

When Fr. Bob would see Melanie in church, he would always have a grand smile and pat her on the head. That was our sign that Fr. Bob knew what had happened and was truly there with our family that morning.

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