When Pope Francis alights from his plane in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 22 President Barack Obama will be there to officially welcome him. Four days later when his plane arrives in Philadelphia, Rick and Bernadette Bowes and their children — Matthew, Riley and Gabrielle of St. Christopher Parish in the Somerton section of the city — will be right there to officially greet him.
The formal announcement that the family had been chosen to greet Pope Francis was made at St. Christopher’s by Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director for the World Meeting of Families on Sunday, Sept. 13 at the conclusion of the 10:30 a.m. Mass. The instant applause of parishioners was clearly from the heart.
That is how it should be. The primary reason Pope Francis is coming to America is for the closing events of the World Meeting of Families including the celebration of Mass on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Rick and Bernadette and their children typify a solid Catholic family.
Seven years ago Rick, who was a Philadelphia Police Officer with the Highway Patrol, was seriously wounded by a felon who had just killed another officer. It is only recently that he was sufficiently healed to take a new position with the Pennsylvania State Attorney General’s office.
It is not, however, because of heroics in the line of duty that Rick and his family were chosen.
“They are an exceptional Catholic family, active in the parish and the community,” said St. Christopher’s pastor, Msgr. Joseph Garvin, who nominated them for the honor. “We do have many exceptional families in the parish, but they are the ideal Christian family.”
Their faith goes way back. Rick is a graduate of Ascension of Our Lord School and Northeast Catholic High, both now closed, while Bernadette graduated from St. Martha School and Archbishop Ryan High. The kids are in seventh, sixth and third grades at St. Christopher.
Msgr. Gavin recalls that after Rick’s literal brush with death, the parish sent a check to assist with the bills for his lengthy recovery. Bernadette sent it back to Msgr. Garvin with the family’s gratitude and thanks, saying there must be people in the parish who needed it more than they did.
For the announcement of the Bowes family’s selection on Sunday to greet the pope, Rick had been given a heads up by Msgr. Garvin just to make certain they would all attend that particular Mass. Bernadette, who thought maybe the family was going to be asked to bring up the offertory gifts, burst into tears at the announcement. She really was in need of a bit of happy news because she had just buried her mother, Joan McLaughlin. It was expected but still a major sorrow.
Rick still can’t quite get his head around his family getting to greet Pope Francis.
“For my part I think he is going to be a saint in the future and we are meeting him,” Rick said. “He is so forward thinking, bringing the church up to modern times.”
Family is all-important to Rick and Bernadette.
“We lean on each other and we come together as a unit,” Rick said. “We always try to pull each other up and the best person we can be. That’s what we try to teach to our children. Even in our darkest times faith was there for us; we prayed when things didn’t look good.”
Rick’s recovery took five years and included seven surgeries and three hospital stays and he was not really able to do much to help Bernadette with their three young children.
Now he looks on the bright side. His police work was mostly on the 6 p.m.-2 a.m. shift with lots of weekend work. Now he works nine to five, no weekends.
“To me everything happens for a reason,” he said. “Now I’m home every day for the kids. I have a normal life.”
Bernadette prayed throughout Rick’s long recovery. When she dropped the kids off to school she would stop in at the church. Her prayer was not so much supplication as thanksgiving for the miracle her husband was still alive.
“I look back and am in awe that we got through,” she said. “I really believe that God gave me the strength to do what I had to do. Your religion is the basis for your morality and your values. That is what is taught at St. Christopher’s. That is what I want my kids to learn and grow up with.”
Bernadette and Rick think there are many others more deserving of the honor to greet Pope Francis, and it is humbling.
Their kids of course are excited. Speaking for the three, Gabrielle, the youngest, said, “I’m so happy I couldn’t believe it,”
As for her message to Pope Francis, it is one universally shared in the Philadelphia Archdiocese: “Welcome to Philadelphia. I hope you enjoy it.”