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The pope and the volcano

Every W’International student has his or her own special memory of their trip overseas. It could be something as simple as taking a long-haul flight for the first time or as mind-blowing as seeing Angkor Wat or the Taj Mahal.

Pope John Paul II has a word with Altheia Poston Cross

For Altheia Poston Cross ’87, meeting the pope was her signature W’International moment.

In 1983-84, Cross and her W’International group, led by their advisor, Dr. Robert Doak, visited Italy. Part of the experience was having “a special audience with the pope,” John Paul II.

It wasn’t quite as intimate as they expected.

“We thought it was going to be great,” Doak says with a laugh. “There were about fifteen hundred people in there.”

The pope made a speech – seven times, in as many different languages – and then slowly moved through the crowd, speaking with people who were crowding toward the ends of the aisles in hopes of have some interaction with him.

He spoke in Swahili to a group from Africa. Next to that group stood Cross, an African-American.

“He shook my hand and he started speaking in Swahili or something,” Cross says. “I guess he thought I was African. I went, ‘No. No. I speak English.’ Somebody snapped a picture. My face was like, ‘What is he talking about?’

“That was my highlight.”

Tina Pagan Day ’87 was in the same group. She remembers the visit to Vatican City – as well as a return visit for another speech by the pope – but says it was just one in a number of remarkable moments during that 10 days.

“Every single day that we were there, something amazing happened,” she says. “It gives me chills right now thinking about it.”

First of all, the group left later than most, on New Year’s Eve, so they celebrated New Year’s just after the plane took off and again in the air over international waters when the clock struck midnight.

Once in Rome, they visited Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town buried by the same Vesuvian outburst that doomed Pompeii. They also took a trip up Mount Vesuvius to see the culprit close-up.

“That was crazy – no guard rails, flying around the mountain,” Day says. “That was exciting.”

Day, who attended Catholic Church services until she was a teen, when she became a Baptist, was especially moved by the group’s visits to Vatican City. A couple of days after their audience with the pope, a few group members returned to the Vatican for an Epiphany speech by John Paul II. For the first time in years, it was snowing in Rome.

“The whole Vatican Square was full of people,” she says. “I couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but I was just crying because it was so emotional and impactful.”

Cross and other Bulldogs even met the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was in Europe on a humanitarian mission.

“It was just wonderful,” she says. “It was a great experience. I tell everyone to go to Wingate and take advantage of W’international.”