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Call it the kiss of life.
Joey Masciantonio vividly remembers the moment his baby daughter Gianna met Pope Francis in Philadelphia — because it almost never happened.
Just hours before the pope’s motorcade passed along Market Street to hundreds of thousands in downtown Philadelphia, Masciantonio was with his wife Kristen and their two children taking in a Saturday morning at their suburban home.
"We believe it was definitely a divine moment"
That is until they received a call from a friend, Donny Asper — an FBI agent who was assigned along with hundreds of other security personnel to guard the pope’s route — who told them to get downtown as soon as they could.
He had secured them passes to see the pope.
For Masciantonio and his wife Kristen, both devout Catholics, the opportunity to see the leader of their church was more than just a dream. They had long wanted their daughter Gianna — who suffers from juvenile xanthogranuloma, an extremely rare blood disorder that affects less than five children in the U.S. every year — to be blessed by Pope Francis.
“But we didn’t actually expect that to happen,” Masciantonio told NBC News.
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Gianna had a brain tumor and had undergone eight surgeries and numerous chemotherapy treatments at Philadelphia Children’s Hospital in her 15 months of life.
Doctors had told the family that she would likely not survive and advised her parents to enjoy the final months they had with their baby daughter.
Due to her condition, Masciantonio initially resisted even going to the rally. Gianna’s immune system had been so weakened by the treatments that he feared her condition would only further deteriorate amid the crowds.
At his wife — and doctors’ — insistence, however, the decision was made to go.
The family made it to the location near the historic James S. Byrne Courthouse on Market Street where the pope was due to pass right after his address at Independence Hall. Masciantonio says he held out Gianna as high as he could to get the attention of Philadelphia police and FBI agents, tipped off by Asper, to wave the Pope’s motorcade over. When the Pope drove by, his security head Domenico Gianni spotted Masciantonio hoisting Gianna above his head and grabbed her. He brought her to the pontiff, who lunged forward to kiss Gianna on the head and grant her his blessing.
“It was the luck of the draw,” said Masciantonio. “We believe it was definitely a divine moment.”
The euphoria of the moment would not last long, however. Gianna still had two pending chemotherapy treatments and an MRI that would show if they were working. Last week, six weeks after her encounter with the Pope, Gianna’s MRI results came back.
The scans, Masciantonio said, showed that the tumor had shrunk significantly.
“It [tumor] was basically just a blush on the screen,” he said. “It was virtually invisible.”
The family, he says, was “astonished” by the progress. Doctors told them that, although the tumor had not been completely eradicated, the prognosis was life-changing: Gianna would likely survive.
For her parents — who Masciantonio says had planned their daughter’s funeral in advance of what they thought would be her inevitable premature death — the news was otherworldly.
Some friends and family called it the “Miracle on Market Street” — attributing Gianna’s remarkable turnaround to the kiss she had received from Pope Francis.
For Masciantonio, however, the pope’s kiss was not the miracle that saved Gianna’s life or cured her.
“The kiss was God’s work, that’s for sure,” said Masciantonio. “But, the miracle was Him giving us the platform to reach those doctors who, ultimately, played a major role in saving Gianna’s life.”