April 19th is a dark day for Oklahomans. It is the day we solemnly remember the Murrah Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people including 19 children. On April 19, 2005, I was sitting in my Oklahoma City apartment in a pretty dark state myself. My beloved grandma was becoming chronically sick, and it was tearing me apart because I knew what was coming. I was also 18 months removed from completing my master’s degree and still without a job. The economy was tough. Jobs were too few and too far between. I was unemployed, basically broke, and had nothing to do but watch TV. My life was in a bit of a depressing lull.
The television coverage that day was all about the ten-year anniversary of the bombing. Like other Oklahomans, I felt obligated to watch, but there was another major world event going on. The day before, the Cardinals of the Catholic Church had entered into the Conclave to elect the successor to Pope John Paul II, who had died about two weeks earlier. I was following this Conclave with profound interest because, four months earlier, I had begun attending RCIA sessions with the full intent of becoming Catholic. I knew that whoever would be elected would be my first Pope. So between memorial stories, I would flip to EWTN for the latest.
Leading up to the Conclave, my then, future father-in-law and I talked a lot about who would be next. People kept talking about “Ratzinger”. Of the Cardinals, Joseph Ratzinger was the only one that I really knew. I had read his book Salt of the Earth. It had spoken to me. It helped me to get over a lot of intellectual hurdles that had prevented me from becoming Catholic. So, I felt like I had a favorite, but it was then that my father-in-law told me of the saying, “he who enters the Conclave as a favorite, comes out as a Cardinal”.
I had returned to local TV for more coverage of the bombing memorial, and around noon, they broke away for regular news coverage and opened with breaking news from Rome. Upon hearing this, I immediately switched over to EWTN hoping to see the white smoke, and there it was! My excitement was building. What name would be announced? Like the Church often makes us, I was forced to patiently wait. Then, the announcement came, “Habemus Papam”. As the introduction continued in Latin, the commentators exclaimed “Joseph Ratzinger”!
I couldn’t believe it. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He was a popular pick by pundits. So, in line with the old saying, his name was almost immediately dismissed. This was such a dramatic surprise. Here I was a candidate to be received into the Catholic Church, and the one Cardinal in the Conclave that I had any connection with had been elected Pope. On a dark day, it really felt like God had opened up the heavens to shine down some hope upon me.
That day turned out to be a real turning point in my life. Within a few days, I had been asked to interview for several jobs, and landed one just two weeks later. My path into the Catholic Church had become clear. In fact, I couldn’t wait to be Catholic, and within five months, I was received into the Church and confirmed.
Being a newly minted Catholic with a job and a little extra money, my then, future wife and I planned a pilgrimage to Rome. In Rome, we got to see the Pope Benedict twice, once in a general audience and once at mass for the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception. It was completely unforgettable. I can still hear the roar in St. Peter’s Basilica when, after a long procession of priests, bishops, and Cardinals, the Pope entered the procession before celebrating mass. It was surreal. I was right on the aisle and would have shaken the Pope’s hand, if an 80-year-old religious sister had not thrown an elbow and blocked me out!
Of course, what my traveling partner did not know is that all week long, I had been carrying a gift around for her. During the general audience, I had this gift blessed by Pope Benedict, and was waiting for the right moment to give it to her. On the last night of our trip, after a lot of prompting, she agreed to go see St. Peter’s one more time. We stood in the square by the north fountain and talked about the wonderful trip we were completing. Finally, I gave her an engagement ring and asked her to marry me. She said yes, and my life has never been the same.
I often point out that a light in one of the rooms in the papal apartment was on and joke that Pope Benedict was standing at the window watching us get engaged. While not likely, it makes for a good story. Regardless, on a dark December night, the light beaming from that apartment reminds of the light that had beamed down on me just a few months earlier during that dark day in April. Pope Benedict has been a bridge from darkness to light in my life, and I am truly thankful to God for his pontificate. I pray that our next Pope can continue to light the way for the Church as Pope Benedict has.