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Gioia recalls pope’s blessing of his marriage in Rome

"It was just this awesome experience - partly it was being in this grand setting in St. Peter's Square," Gioia (D-Sunnyside) said. "To be blessed by the pope is really unbelievable."Gioia met the Pope John Paul II on Oct. 20, just days before the pontiff fell seriously ill in his last bout of sickness, which eventually led to his death Saturday.Gioia married his wife, Lisa Hernandez Gioia, on Oct. 16 and immediately left for a European honeymoon through Venice, Florence, Rome and the Amalfi coast."While in Rome, we had the extraordinary opportunity to have a papal visit," he said. "He greets newlyweds and we applied. The Vatican was just extraordinary thoughtful. They couldn't have been nicer, sweeter."The couple was notified that they had been selected for a papal visit while they were traveling through Florence."We had to go out and buy clothes, I had to get a suit," he recalled. "We actually had to rearrange our trip so we could be in Rome."Lisa Hernandez Gioia and Eric Gioia, both Roman Catholics, arrived in Vatican City for the visit mid-honeymoon."Right on St. Peter's Square he spoke to probably about 20,000 or 30,000 people," he said. "After that we were able to go up and speak with him."The self-described talker in the relationship, Eric Gioia found himself at a loss for words when he was faced with John Paul II."It was just this amazing moment, so emotional. I just got tongue-tied and Lisa jumped in," he said. "He was very calm, but he had an incredible life in his eyes, he had a young man's eyes. He just looked at you and really gazed at you. You really felt his presence."He said he will never forget what the pope said to the pair. "When he found out we were newlyweds, his eyes lit up, he congratulated us and he blessed us," Gioia said. "He told us what a beautiful thing love is. He also told us that he loved New York."A framed photo of the couple with the pope sits in Gioia's district office as a reminder of the experience. It has been there since long before the pope died this weekend."What's been so extraordinary has been to see the outpouring of love and sympathy and see all the lives he's touched," Gioia said of the pontiff's death. "In my case he physically touched our lives."Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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