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Norfolk family's trip to Rome and Vatican City after receiving personal invite from the Pope

PUBLISHED: 16:23 15 October 2019 | UPDATED: 16:23 15 October 2019

Pope Francis giving a blessing to Paul Gilbert, who is waving his Zucchetto, and his grandmother Henrietta. Also Paul Gilbert with his Zucchetto. Picture: courtesy of Paul Gilbert

Pope Francis giving a blessing to Paul Gilbert, who is waving his Zucchetto, and his grandmother Henrietta. Also Paul Gilbert with his Zucchetto. Picture: courtesy of Paul Gilbert

Courtesy of Paul Gilbert

A Norfolk family spent a weekend in Rome after receiving a personal invitation from the Pope himself.

John and Henrietta Connolly, from Thetford, were personally invited to Rome by the Pope Francis for the canonisation ceremony of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Photo: Courtesy of Paul GilbertJohn and Henrietta Connolly, from Thetford, were personally invited to Rome by the Pope Francis for the canonisation ceremony of Cardinal John Henry Newman. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Gilbert

John and Henrietta Connolly, aged 77 and 74, of Mingay Road, Thetford, received a blessing from Pope Francis, on July 26, congratulating them on their 56 years of marriage.

But what they did not expect was a personal invite to attend a canonisation ceremony in the Vatican City, which is the act by which the Roman Catholic Church names someone who is dead as a saint.

On October 13, three generations of their family, including their daughter, Helen Gilbert, 56, and grandson Paul Gilbert, 39, also from Thetford, attended the canonisation mass of Cardinal John Henry Newman in St Peter's Square in the Vatican City, the papal enclave inside Rome, Italy.

An internationally attended event, John Henry Newman, who died in Birmingham in 1890, is the first English person to be made a saint in almost 50 years.

Pope Francis giving a blessing to Paul Gilbert, who is waving his Zucchetto, and his grandmother Henrietta. Also Paul Gilbert with his Zucchetto. Picture: Courtesy of Paul GilbertPope Francis giving a blessing to Paul Gilbert, who is waving his Zucchetto, and his grandmother Henrietta. Also Paul Gilbert with his Zucchetto. Picture: Courtesy of Paul Gilbert

After attending the mass, the family received a wave and blessing from the pope himself, and said it was a weekend they will never forget.

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Mr and Mrs Connolly said: "We saw the last Pope when he came to the UK but we never thought about going to Rome before.

"It was only when we received the letter that we thought this could be our only chance of going. It was a once in a lifetime experience."

The papal blessing  from Pope France to John and Henrietta Connolly congratulating them on their 56 years of marriage. Photo: John and Henrietta ConnollyThe papal blessing from Pope France to John and Henrietta Connolly congratulating them on their 56 years of marriage. Photo: John and Henrietta Connolly

The family received seats very near the front in St Peter's Square and Mr Gilbert decided to use the occasion to try to swap caps with the Pope, an ancient Vatican tradition.

Mr Gilbert said: "A papal zucchetto is the small white skull cap that the Pope wears in everyday use.

"There is a very ancient Vatican tradition in which, if you purchase a white zucchetto at the official papal tailor, Gammarelli, you can hold it up and the Pope, or the Swiss Guards, will swap yours for the one the Pope is wearing.

"The Pope did in fact see us and waved at us but because of the time constraints and that he had to tour St Peter's Square before he met the dignitaries from various countries, as he drove passed he blessed us and smiled as he passed by. It was a great moment."

The personal invite from Pope France to John and Henrietta Connolly asking if they would attend the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Rome at the Vatican. Photo: John and Henrietta ConnollyThe personal invite from Pope France to John and Henrietta Connolly asking if they would attend the canonisation of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Rome at the Vatican. Photo: John and Henrietta Connolly

The family, who attend St Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Thetford, are now back at home resting after what they have described as a humbling and inspiring experience.

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