Let's rewind about a decade or so. It's the spring semester of my 'first' senior year (I'll explain later) in college, and I'm living the dream. Sort of. I'm 22 years old, living in a crappy 2-storey victorian house off Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado with 2 roommates (one of whom is a guy) and a collection of pets and beer bottles. Both my roommates are ROTC cadets and all three of us work part time at restaurants and bars. We party often, and we party hard. Like black out every single weekend night, hard.
Looking back, it still boggles my mind that I somehow skated through most of my undergraduate life without suffering any real violence (I did get tear gassed after a football game descended into rioting once) and without having been sexually assaulted. Truly. I was in such a dark place in my faith and in my life, and I made so.many.bad.decisions. There is no reason I should have been spared the fate which so many of my girlfriends suffered. Date rape. Abortions. Physically abusive relationships. It was a mess of a town, and we were living in the thick of it, happily drinking ourselves into a kind of perpetual numbness that made that sort of life tolerable.
A few weeks before the new semester had started, my little sister was home for a visit from the uptight, conservative Catholic college where she was a freshman, and she thought it proper to have a little "come to Jesus" conversation with me at our parent's house after Christmas. She challenged me to stop drinking for a month, betting that I wouldn't be able to quit the party train, and basically broke down in tears telling me she didn't know me any more, didn't recognize the sister she had always looked up to, and knew I could be doing something so much greater with my life.
Here was this 18-year old freshman who had chosen to attend a private school and who had very little experience with working or with the real world telling me that my life choices were disappointing to her…what did she know? She knew nothing about reality, nothing about the world outside her fairytale campus where she was protected from all the things I saw on a daily basis, and she certainly didn't understand anything about my life. So basically I was really receptive.
She did know me well, though, and was right to irritate my competitive response by throwing down a gauntlet. "I bet you can't…"
Oh hell yes, I could. And I would, just to prove her wrong.
So the spring semester began. And I took a 30-day hiatus from partying. And … it was eye opening. After the first week the novelty of what I was attempting began to wear off, and my roommates started begging me to come out with them again. They reluctantly headed out to the bars when Friday rolled around, convinced that I would join them the following night. Or the night after that.
But I didn't.
2 weeks went by and my phone stopped ringing. I mean really stopped ringing. Nobody called. One friend met me at a coffee shop for what I thought was going to be a nice catch up (and a reprieve from my temporarily leperous social status) and instead proceeded to "dump" me. "I have to focus on school, my internship, work, and my social life right now. I don't have time for lunch dates or other bullshit; if you won't come out with us, we're done."
I was shocked. And most of all, really confused. This was my best friend. And we were done, because I was done partying.
As the one-month mark approached, I found myself staring down the barrel of Lent, a season which I still knew existed, but whose passage I had certainly neglected to mark for several years. (An aside: I never physically left the Catholic Church during my troubled college years, though I ache at the thought of how many times I unworthily received the Eucharist. I somehow couldn't quit the Sunday Mass habit, hangover or not. Thanks, Mom.)
So Lent. Feeling pretty convicted that I was on the right track from a personal growth perspective, I decided to continue my little social experiment as a form of fasting. I gave up alcohol for Lent, and I let the party-less weekends keep piling up. Bored and lonely in the evenings, I found myself on a website I'd heard my mom talk about and ordered a couple of cassette tapes (I am seriously aging myself here, but they were like $1.00 and the CDs were $3.00) and then forgot all about it. Imagine my surprise when a manila envelope from Catholicity.com arrived on my doorstep a week later. Feeling like I was smuggling drugs, I hustled it up to my room where I locked myself in with my roommates' ghetto blaster and put in the first tape I laid my hands on: "Scott Hahn: A Protestant Minister Converts."
I must have listened to that tape 3 times that first night. I just kept hitting 'rewind' and starting it over. My roommates eventually stumbled home from the bar with a group of revelers and people were pounding down my door at 1 am, screaming for me to come out and take shots with them, and I'm lying in my bed pretending to be asleep, tears streaming down my face, listing to this Scott Hahn guy talk about becoming Catholic. And it was just too much.
Holy Week came and went that year and I'm sure I went to Easter Mass, but I don't really remember. I was coming to the end of my little experiment and still debating whether I wanted to reenter 'normal' college life or not. The past 12 weeks had certainly been more peaceful, but I was still in a lot of pain that I was no longer medicating with alcohol, and I was really lonely.
Suddenly the media started cranking out tons of stories about the Pope. John Paul II had been sick for most of my teenage years and young adulthood; I hardly remembered a time when he had been healthy. Fascinated, I watched the coverage coming out of Rome in between classes and before work. I found myself wondering about him and his suffering and racing home to check the news. On the day he died, the vigil of Divine Mercy Sunday, I sat rooted to my couch, tears streaming down my face and in shock. He was really gone, and the pain I felt was so inappropriately disproportionate for the relationship I had with him (I mean he was some random church leader half a world away) but so raw. I literally felt like I'd lost my own father. Blinded by tears, I left the house and started walking towards downtown. I didn't know where I was going, but it was mid afternoon and I'd been glued to the television for hours. I found myself walking towards the Catholic church north of downtown, maybe a 15 block distance from our house.
When I reached the church I hesitated outside the front door, wondering what I was doing there. I'd never been to church outside of Sunday Mass, at least not for many years, and I wondered if they even kept churches unlocked during the week. I tried the handle and it yielded.
As I made my way into the darkened sanctuary I noticed only 2 other people on the premises: an older woman wearing a headscarf, sitting near the front with her head bowed, and a guy holding camera equipment, lurking off to the side. I made my way down the center aisle and noticed an easel surrounded by candles in front of the altar. As I got closer I could see that it was an image of John Paul II, and I burst into tears. Without even realizing what I was doing, I covered the remaining distance to the altar and found myself on my knees in front of his picture, crying embarrassing, public tears. The camera guy must have smelled them, because suddenly he was right there at my side, clicking away as I knelt there before the altar, sobbing and embarrassed and so overwhelmed by a grief I couldn't understand.
When my torrent of tears had slowed to a sniffle, he gently asked whether he might ask me a few questions, holding out press credentials and identifying himself as a reporter for the local paper. Sniffling, I nodded and stammered out an explanation of JPII being like my father, my grandfather, the only pope I'd ever known…and then gave him my name and occupation. The next day my mom called crying and telling me I was in the Denver Post, and I still have a yellowing copy of the piece filed away somewhere.
After that day I knew with certainty that I couldn't go back to my old life.
Without telling any of my friends or co-workers, I applied for a transfer to Franciscan University of Steubenville, the school I'd mocked my sister for attending months earlier. 2 weeks later I was holding a letter of acceptance in my shaking hands. The rest of the school year and that summer in between were hard. I felt like I was living in two worlds, and I was seriously doubting my hasty, sober decision. Nevertheless, when summer came to an end, I packed up my white Kia Sephia and headed east, to a decrepit little town on the banks of the Ohio River, reeking of industrial waste and blue collar pride. And life has never been the same.
JPII, I credit you.
See you next week in Rome.