10 years ago on a cold spring evening in early April an old man died in his bed a half a world away, and a selfish, frequently drunken 22-year old college student fell to her knees in her dingy living room.
Eyes glued to the tv screen, I struggled to make sense of what I was seeing on the television screen and the corresponding ache in my chest for a man I’d never met and for a religion I barely practiced.
I was never the same again.
I spent most of April 2nd in a daze, missing all my classes and breaking into real tears periodically. Eventually the news coverage coming out of Rome lost its pull on me and I ventured from the couch to the front door, destination unknown.
Within a half a dozen blocks I found myself in front of the Catholic church I sometimes attended on weekends, still drawn to participation in the Mass even when the vigil had been spent blacked out drunk with 20,000 of my closest friends on Pearl Street.
I pushed on the heavy bronzed door and was surprised when it yielded to me. It was around noon, and the church was unlocked and completely empty save for an elderly woman sitting near the altar and a younger guy with camera equipment standing off to one side of the sanctuary.
At the end of the aisle someone had erected a makeshift shrine; a single votive candle burned beneath an easel holding the papal portrait of John Paul II. There were a few potted flowers, leftover Easter decor still dotted the stairway surrounding the altar.
Propelled almost unconsciously, I found myself at the front of the church and dropping to my knees in front of his picture. I noticed the red light burning in a lantern hung in my periphery, and I looked past the image in front of me to the tabernacle behind the altar. I knew He was there, too.
I dropped my head into my hand and wept. I had absolutely no explanation for the intensity of my reaction, given the attention I’d given to my Catholic faith for the past 4 years. College had effectively paganized me, at least in practice, and I was Catholic in name only. I knew this, of course, but that morning for the first time it caused me both deep, reflective sorrow and inspired the hope that maybe I could turn things around.
I looked up at the sound of a camera clicking away and the young guy with the equipment shrugged his shoulders and asked sheepishly if I’d consent to having the images used in the paper. The next morning I saw myself under the fold on the front page of the Denver Post. Not many people have a picture of themselves on the day their conversion began in earnest, and even though it’s grainy, black and white, and not terribly flattering, it’s something I treasure. It’s proof that I was there, and now I’m here.
More than that, it captures the essence of my relationship with JPII: penitent prodigal meets spiritual father. Fireworks ensue. Lifelong friendship is cemented.
Later that same month I withdrew from all my college courses and stopped going out to bars every night. As my phone stopped ringing and my friends drifted away, I spent long weekend nights listening to CDs of famous Catholic speakers (Scott Hahn, anyone?) and gradually began to come alive to the mysteries and depth of the Faith.
By early May I had an acceptance letter in my hands from Franciscan University of Steubenville. I would transfer there at the summer’s end and spend the next 3 years in a kind of spiritual, emotional and physical rehab, piecing back together the real Jenny.
Through it all, St. John Paul II (who I never doubted was directly interceding for little old me) became one of my closest friends.
I couldn’t have dreamt it on April 2nd, 2005, but on Divine Mercy Sunday in the year 2011, I stood in St. Peter’s Square with a million other pilgrims, my 7-month-old son pressed uncomfortably close to my chest in a baby carrier, squeezed by Italians on every side, and listened as Pope Benedict gave him to the Universal Church as a “Blessed.”
If that wasn’t sufficiently awesome, three years later I returned to that same square, this time with two more sweet babies in tow and my husband by my side, and we distractedly wrestled toddlers through the long ceremony and misting Roman rain while Pope St. John Paul II was elevated to the altar and proclaimed “Sanctus.”
I smiled because I’d known for years that this day would come, and I cried because I never dreamt I would be there to witness it.
St. John Paul II, I love you. And I owe, quite simply, everything to your intercession. Please never stop praying for me.
“Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.” Pope St. John Paul II