We rose, bleary-eyed, on a Wednesday morning in March to see the sun rise in Rome. My wife and I (not yet engaged) were on a school pilgrimage to the Holy Land and Italy for the Jubilee Year with forty other pilgrims. I smiled at my college roommate as we parted ways to begin one of the most significant mornings of my life.
The Ponte Sant’Angelo – the Bridge of the Holy Angel – in Rome is magical. Along its way are ten magnificent sculptures, angels holding objects that relate to Christ’s passion. The bridge leads to the Castel Sant’Angelo, a fortress with a powerful history in the life of the Church. I met Danielle on the bridge in darkness; we silently linked hands and watched. This morning was clear and comfortable, the air crisp. As the sun began to rise, the sky was filled with an amazing palette of color, oranges and reds of subtle hues; God the artist took just a moment to remind the city’s great works that they paled in comparison with his own spontaneous masterpieces.
After taking this all in, we had breakfast and made our way to the Church of the Gesu, the Jesuit mother church. This truly magnificent structure has a tremendous past, and houses many important Jesuit relics. With all due reverence to the remains of these holy men, this day I was in search of the Sacred Heart chapel. My roommate was already there, with flowers in hand, part of my plot. We kneeled and prayed. With shaky hand, I removed a small box from my pocket. You must understand that this box had never left me during the previous week; I had fretted over it, sure my plan was going to be revealed prematurely while Israeli airport security dissected our baggage as only they can do and visions of pickpockets danced in my head. I felt like a hobbit fiddling nervously with the precious band of gold that would play a role in my destiny.
I carefully removed the ring as Danielle’s face became a shade of red, close to matching the beauty of the morning’s sunrise. On bended knee, I asked her to intertwine her life with mine, to take on the monumental task of helping me to reach heaven (my part, I already knew, would be much easier than hers!). Surprised, and perhaps lacking judgment so early in the morning, Danielle accepted my proposal that we become man and wife. So began our Ash Wednesday in the year 2000.
We couldn’t imagine greater blessings on this day, but God is unmatched in his generosity. We walked in giddiness to Pope John Paul II’s Wednesday audience. The audience lacked nothing of the power we would have expected. For me, it was a great moment.
I can’t remember which sights we saw that day. What I can recall with vivid detail is the Ash Wednesday Mass that evening. Built in 422, the Basilica of Santa Sabina is the “stational” church for Ash Wednesday, the traditional spot for the Pope to say Mass with the faithful to kick off Lent. So it was this year.
The Church was packed, of course, but mostly with Italians and adult pilgrims. There were very few children to be seen anywhere. Danielle and I found ourselves standing near the center aisle, next to Jackie Lemmon and her little baby. Jackie has passed on from this world now, but we think of her often.
Those who have learned anything of Pope John Paul II know that he loved people, and especially children. As Mass began – the Holy Father was still able to process under his own power – Pope John Paul noticed the baby next to us. Despite the fact that the disease that afflicted him had almost frozen his face in non-expression, the Pope became visibly filled with joy at seeing this child; it was evident, palpable.
The Pope walked slowly over to us and blessed the baby, mere inches from where we stood. It is hard to describe the joy we felt at this unexpected blessing. We spent the Mass in a state of bliss.
Many people had more in-depth encounters with Pope John Paul II. We didn’t speak to him. He probably didn’t notice our beaming faces. But our encounter with this holy man, this brief moment of intersection, continues to have real power in our lives.
My wife and I began our commitment on a day filled with many graces. Our brush with (soon-to-be) Pope Saint John Paul II has given us a connection with and love of this man that I know helps to guide us. His call to live our faith in robust ways, to follow God’s will in all things, has been ever-present in our marriage. I know he has interceded for us. I am grateful for that amazing day, and for every day that has built upon it since.
This article was first published in the March 21, 2014 issue of the Colorado Catholic Herald.