Sami and Mary Sue Legeza part of pilgrimage to Rome for new Cardinal

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For most members of the Catholic Church, the chance to go to Rome and visit the Vatican and other iconic places of church history is a dream.

For 10-year old Sami Legeza, a fourth grader at Jefferson-Craig Elementary School, it recently became a reality.

Sami accompanied her mother, Mary Sue Legeza, and her maternal grandparents on an official pilgrimage to Rome to witness His eminence Raymond Leo Burke be elevated to the College Cardinals. They were a part of a 50-person group to make the pilgrimage, which was in November.

Cardinal Burke had just entered the priesthood in La Crosse, Wisconsin, when he taught religion classes at the local Catholic High School. One of his students was Mary Sue Legeza.

“One of Cardinal Burke’s big missions was to build a Shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe on land that had been donated in La Crosse while he served there as Bishop,” Mary Sue Legeza said. “And over the past seven years they have built this big shrine that he has been overseeing. He goes back regularly and my mom and dad still live there and volunteer there, and he stops and visits them every time he’s in La Crosse.”

From there Cardinal Burke became the Archbishop of St. Louis in 2003.

In May of 2008, Pope Benedict XVI named Cardinal Burke to two Vatican offices. He was named a member of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, which authentically interprets canon law; and also became a member of the Congregation for the Clergy, which regulates the formation and training of diocesan priests and deacons.

On June 27th, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Archbishop Burke to the office of Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, a position roughly equivalent to that of Chief Justice of the United States. As such, immediately after the Pontiff, Cardinal Burke holds the highest judicial office in the entirety of the Catholic Church.

Because he had attained such a high status, it was assumed at some point the Pope would elevate him to the College of Cardinals. When it was officially announced in late October that Archbishop Burke would be elevated to Cardinal on November 20th, a contingent of Wisconsin followers, including Mary Sue Legeza’s parents – and Mary Sue and Sami Legeza – decided to go on a pilgrimage to Rome to witness the event.

“The Cardinals are the ones responsible for naming the next Pope,” Mary Sue Legeza said. “Cardinal Burke has a position in Rome, which other Cardinals don’t. They just go back home and continue their work.”

Mary Sue Legeza said that there are approximately 200 members of the College of Cardinals, and that Popes who are elected come from the College of Cardinals. She said that a Cardinal has to be under age 80 in order to vote for the Pope; and also has to be under 80 in order to be considered as Pope. Cardinals older than age 80 still hold the office, but do not participate in official votes.

Cardinal Burke is 62 years old.

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Once the announcement was made, there were a lot of details to attend to, including getting Sami Legeza’s passport and arrangements made for her to miss school time.

And the trip?

“We got up early and went to bed late,” Sami Legeza said. “We did a lot of religious things and saw a lot of religious places.”

“We went to mass everyday,” Mary Sue Legeza said. “Priests who traveled with us were allowed to say the mass and to give communion at these churches from the first century, that are hugely rich in religious culture. It was breathtaking.”

The group left from Wisconsin, flew to Minneapolis, then to Chicago before flying 8 1/2 hours into Germany. From there is was on to Rome to begin the pilgrimage.

Sami Legeza said that the group traveled all over Italy, seeing a variety of sights.

“I liked being really close to the Pope and having mass with Cardinal Burke right after he became a Cardinal,” Sami Legeza said. “That meant a lot to me.”

Sami and the rest of her group got to see the Pope on a couple of occasions, including the mass that installed Cardinal Burke.

Mary Sue Legeza said that the group also had the honor of viewing a papal audience, normally reserved for Wednesdays but was also held on Monday because of the large number of people in Rome for the elevation of the Cardinals.

“It was open to the public, but apparently people didn’t know, because the auditorium holds 8,000 and it’s usually overflowing, but at the one on Monday there were only about 4,000 people there, so we were very close.”

In fact, one the couples on the pilgrimage with the Legeza’s had their baby kissed and blessed by the Pope as he entered for the papal audience.

Sami Legeza didn’t have a lot of good to say about the food in Italy, noting that she’s not much of a “spaghetti fan” anyway, but did say that she loved the gelatto – an Italian ice cream with a smooth, creamy texture.

She was also fascinated by the “Euro”, the European currency, noting that $100 in American money converted to just $60 in Euros.

“We learned quite quickly how to barter,” Mary Sue Legeza said.

Sami Legeza also saw many other shrines during her travels around Italy.

“We saw the body of St. Claire, and we saw the tomb of St. Francis,” Sami Legeza said. “And we say the Pieta, which is a statue of Mary holding Jesus after he was crucified that’s in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican.”

The group also got to attend a private dinner in honor of Cardinal Burke and participate in mass that he led.

“He was just the most gracious person,” Mary Sue Legeza said. “Other Cardinals there didn’t take the time to spend time with the people who came to support them.”

So what’s it mean to be a young person who has gotten to experience this pilgrimage?

“It makes me feel special,” Sami said. “When I got back I shared everything with the people in our church.”

“Sami probably holds the distinction of being the very first person to ask Cardinal Burke for his autograph,” Mary Sue Legeza said with a laugh. “I don’t think anyone else was brave enough to ask, but Sami did.”

- Pat Lanman