Gino Vizzi didn’t get to see Pope Francis during his visit to the United States.
On Wednesday, however, the 17-year-old Dacula teen will get to meet the pontiff on his home turf — the Vatican.
Make-A-Wish Georgia is sending Vizzi, his parents and his younger sister, Julia, to Rome, where they will attend a Wednesday public Mass officiated by Pope Francis. Vizzi and one of his parents will sit on a front pew where the pope is expected to offer a blessing.
“I’m speechless,” said Gino Vizzi. “It’s not something that a lot of people get to do. Coming from a background of being Catholic, it’s all a dream come true.”
In September 2014, Vizzi, a senior at Mill Creek High School, was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia during a doctor’s visit to check on a persistent cough, weight loss and headaches.
Additional blood tests showed that the teen had more than a cough. He had an incurable form of cancer that is most often found in people who are much older.
Vizzi, who must take chemo every day, wants the pontiff to bless him and “give me the strength to help other kids and I want to ask him to pray to find a cure.”
He said his friends are in shock that he will soon be face to face with the pope. “They’re so happy for me.”
His mother, ToniAnn Vizzi, said the diagnosis hit the close-knit family like a sledgehammer. Her husband started crying. Gino Vizzi looked at his mother. She looked at the doctor and knew she had to be strong for her son. “I said, ‘OK, what do we do now? We got this.’”
Gino Vizzi later came to view his diagnosis as a way to help other young people battling cancer.
He has started a nonprofit, P4 (Pray for) Foundation, to help others. He hopes to attend Kennesaw State University to study business or integrated medicine.
“In Gino’s eyes, he feels like he’s been healed because of his wonderful relationship with God,” said Amy Alvarez, vice president of marketing and communications for Make-A-Wish Georgia. “His spirituality is heart-touching to us as an organization. We knew we needed to make this happen. It’s really awesome.”
The recommendation for Vizzi was made through the Aflac Cancer Center of Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where he has received treatment. A large number of the organization’s referrals come from the medical profession. The rest come from parents, immediate family and sometimes, the child.
To participate in Make-A-Wish, a child must be between 2 1/2 and 18 years old and have a life-threatening illness. There are four types of wishes: I wish to be; I wish to go; I wish to have; and I wish to meet. Meeting a “celebrity,” particularly the head of an estimated 1.2 billion members of the Roman Catholic Church, is no easy feat.
Alvarez said the state organization relied on the chapter in Italy to make the meeting happen.
The trip will be paid for by Make-A-Wish Georgia, a nonprofit that relies heavily on donations. Any donations made to the state chapter are used only for Georgia children.
The Rev. Eric Hill, pastor of Prince of Peace Catholic Church in Flowery Branch, where Vizzi is a parishioner, said he was asked by Gino Vizzi to go along, and he will pay his own way.
”I was floored that this teenager asked to meet the pope, with all of the other options that were available to him,” Hill said. “Now that I know more about Gino, it is no longer a surprise.”
“He’s very positive,” said his father, Dave Vizzi. “… There’s nothing more you can ask for as a parent than to have a child who is dealt such a horrible hand and he’s turned it into such a positive thing.”
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