All through college, I drank and smoked to dull the pain. I nurtured friendships that were rooted in mutual use and convenience. And I never prayed. My participation in the Mass was rote and as basic as breathing. I went on Sundays because it was as deeply ingrained in my person as being a woman, as being a sister and a daughter. All of my relationships were unhealthy during these dark times, perhaps none more so than my relationship with God. If I thought of Him at all, is was with swift, accompanying shame and agonizing pain. I felt utterly and completely lost in life.
And then, on a cool spring morning in April of my senior year, everything changed.
I can remember coming downstairs before class and turning on the TV to find nothing but news coverage on every channel, honing in on Rome, the spiritual center of our faith, cameras trained on the windows of the papal apartment in St. Peter's Square. Pope John Paul II had just died, and as the talking heads filled in the details of the final hours of his life, I sank to the couch. I didn't move for hours.
I ended up later that day at a church in our neighborhood, surprised to find the doors unlocked. I crept into the warm semi-darkness and all the way up the center aisle, irresistibly drawn to a candlelit image of the late Holy Father, a man I'd never met, had rarely given much thought to, and whose loss I felt as acutely as if I'd lost my own father. I fell to my knees and wept, and a newspaper photographer happened to capture the moment. I still have the copy, a black and white image of the day my life started over.
That day changed everything. I dropped out of school. Doubled down on my ongoing experiment with abstinence from alcohol. Went back to Confession. Packed up everything I owned into a little white Kia sedan and drove across the country to re-enroll in college in a little town called Steubenville with almost nothing going for it save for an exceptionally Catholic university.
The next 3 years would be a period of profound healing, pain, self discovery, and growth in faith. I found real friends. I found my dignity as a woman, as a human being created to love and to be loved. And ultimately, I found Jesus Christ.
That day in April of my senior year of college – my first senior year – was the turning point, the moment when heaven seemed to reach down to earth by way of some special grace poured out just for me, the parting gift of a pope from Poland whom I never met, but who I hope to hug in heaven one day.
That day marked my breakthrough.
Let us pray together in the words of our late, great Holy Father this invocation made at the start of Mass in Victory Square in communist-occupied Poland:
“Heavenly Father, send down your Spirit, and renew the face of the earth...and this land!”