ST. PETERSBURG — Joshua Luker, 18, stood on the steps of the Vatican, shaking with anticipation and excitement.
The recent Seminole High School graduate has faced his share of fears — from battling cancer twice to hiding it from his classmates while continuing his involvement on the school cross-country team.
Yet nothing prepared him for the day his dream to meet Pope Francis would come true. As he stood among thousands of devoted followers in Vatican City on Wednesday, near the end of the line of a lucky few granted access to shake the pope's hand, Joshua wasn't sure whether he could keep his cool.
“It was kind of nerve-racking as I could see him going down the line of people because I didn't really know what to say,” Joshua said as he relaxed on the lawn of a farm in Tuscany with his family on Thursday. “Then as he got closer, I just got incredibly calm. I asked him to pray for me, and he said he would pray for me as long as I also prayed for him. We just shared that moment with each other, then I got to shake his hand and they gave me a blessed rosary. He was so kind.”
Joshua's prayer, a miracle in itself, was one the Tampa office of Make-A-Wish Central and Northern Florida felt was much deserved for the Largo teen and his family. Through donations, Make-A-Wish paid for Joshua, his parents, and his 16-year-old brother Matthew to take the trip of a lifetime; at an estimated cost of $16,000.
Joshua and his family traveled by limo to the airport June 14 to be transported to Rome for the first leg of their nine-day vacation. They toured St. Peter's Basilica, the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Palatine Museum, ate some of the finest food in the world, and stayed at a working farm in the Tuscan valley sampling fresh honey, olives and grapes. Before this trip, the farthest the family had been from home was Arizona to see the Grand Canyon.
Yet, sitting in his bed at St. Joseph's Hospital in December 2012, feeling “incredibly scared,” Joshua said he wasn't sure he would even make a wish at all.
Joshua was diagnosed with testicular cancer at age 16 and immediately did everything in his power to separate his illness from his life at Seminole High School, even going to dinner with friends the day he was diagnosed.
His first surgery was in December, and he recovered over Christmas vacation, his mother, Elaine, said. He went back to school in January and ran the entire track season. No one knew what had happened.
“I just tried to keep it a secret until I had a recurrence and I had to do chemo and lose all my hair, then I had to let everyone know,” Joshua said. “I just felt like it would be all right, and I didn't want to explain it to a lot of people. I wanted to just let it be.”
Despite the fear and uncertainty his illness brought, it also showed his family how generous and kind people can be, he said.
After he told his track team of his ongoing battle with cancer, about nine of his teammates shaved their heads in support. Within weeks of finishing chemotherapy, he finished out the cross-country season, “bald and proud,” his mother said.
Then last year, Joshua learned he was one of just under 300 young people in the Tampa area chosen by Make-A-Wish.
“A wish to meet the Pope is not one we get very often — in my 17 years I've only gotten one other request — but we knew it was something really meaningful to Joshua and his family, and we try to accommodate every child's one true wish within reason,” said Norma Gonzalez, Program Services manager with the Suncoast Tampa Make-A-Wish office.
“We knew this would be really special to the whole family and be closure in a way. The whole family is very close and has a very strong faith, and this was like the icing on the cake now that he's doing so well.”
While in the hospital, Joshua passed the hours scrolling through Instagram pictures by a girl traveling the country, marveling at the beauty of the world from his hospital bed, he said. He also began to “grow into” his faith, taking the Eucharist in his room, praying with visitors from St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church in Clearwater and “growing closer to prayer.”
“The goodness of the people that contribute to Make A Wish has been truly unbelievable,” Elaine Luker said Thursday. “We're in the most beautiful place right now in the Tuscan valley, hanging outside on the patio, and it feels like we can finally breathe. We've all learned to pay it forward just from the generosity of all the people we've encountered that come together to make something like this possible for people who go through truly terrible things so early in life.”
Seated on the highest platform among thousands of people in St. Peter's Square, Josh and his family were as close to the pope as possible. The noise of thousands of excited onlookers who share the same faith will forever be a part of him, he said.
But perhaps the best part is coming home with a clean bill of health.
“I'm feeling good,” Joshua said with a large smile.
His cancer has been in remission for nine months, though he continues to have testing every three months. Joshua will start at St. Petersburg College in the fall, explore his interests in electronics and automotives, and choose which of his many interests to pursue. He'll come home and continue working on his 1992 Ford Escort, he said.
“I feel very blessed,” he said. “I've learned that you always have hope and you can always get through things. I've learned to trust in faith.”