Rita Kolodziej and Dolores Jazdzewski drove through the snow Thursday from Stevens Point for the chance to be in the presence of a cardinal they believe one day may head the Roman Catholic Church. "He could be pope someday," said Kolodziej after Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving in St. Joseph the Workman Cathedral.
The former bishop of the La Crosse Diocese, who now leads the Vatican's Supreme Tribunal of Apostolic Court, returned to the area for the first time since being elevated to cardinal last month in Rome.
"He will be our first American pope," said Jazdzewski, whose son is a priest ordained by Burke.
Even if he isn't pope yet, Kolodziej said she felt she was in the presence of greatness on Thursday.
"The pope is next to God and the cardinal is next to the pope."
And for that moment of grace, the ladies said it was well worth the snowy drive.
A group from Stratford, Wis., where Burke worshiped as a boy, agreed.
Mary Zuelke was there with her daughter Andie, and her own mother, Laura Niehausma, and Debbie Johnston, who is principal of St. Joseph's school in Stratford.
"We thought it was pretty awesome," Mary said.
"He confirmed both my sons," Johnston said, so this seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
The Mass, which lasted nearly two hours, was both a thanksgiving for his many blessings and a homecoming, Burke said.
"Not being in Wisconsin for some time, I'm particularly impressed you came out in this weather," he said. "I do not forget from where I came. It brings me the deepest joy to return to my home and to you," he told the nearly full church.
And as he promised to pray for his home diocese, he asked for prayers in return.
"Please pray for me that I will never fail to take up the burden of Christ's love. I need your help now more than ever," Burke said.
Lorene Palm of Westby, who brought her children to attend the Mass, said it was exciting to have a cardinal come from this diocese.