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Wounded family gets healing hand

Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks

October 9, 1995

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On a day when he extolled the power of faith and family, Pope John Paul II held the hands of a man and woman who had their faith and family shattered.

Patricia and Jim McDonnell were given the high privilege of holding the hand of the pope during the handshake of peace at yesterday's Mass. They were the only Baltimoreans so chosen.

"God bless you " the pope said as he held Patricia McDonnell's hand.

" on the loss of your son," he added, holding Jim's.

The pope knew. He had been told. The McDonnells had lived every parent's nightmare -- the death of a child.

Now, 18 months later, they were among those of us at the altar in the warm sun, soft breezes and incense-laced air of Oriole Park.

They ascended the steps and reached for the hand of the man in the billowing green vestments. With them were their 8-year-old daughter, Brigid, and their son, Sean McDonnell, fraternal twin of the late Ryan McDonnell, the boy who wasn't there.

The boy who wasn't there had been a gifted and talented student at Arbutus Middle School. He was killed in March 1994 when he was struck by two vehicles while riding his bicycle near his home.

He was only 13.

Friends of the family did all they could to help the McDonnells heal. Ryan's art teacher put his unfinished portrait of Cal Ripken Jr. into a student exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Art. "Cal was his hero," his mother said.

Friends of the family raised money for a scholarship fund for his fraternal twin, so that Sean could attend Mount St. Joe. The Maiden Choice Community Association turned a vacant lot on Leeds Avenue into a park in Ryan's memory.

Then the McDonnells, both of them active in Our Lady of Victory parish, were nominated -- they don't know by whom, exactly -- for a part in the papal Mass, originally scheduled for October 1994.

Jim McDonnell is president of the parish council, his wife the president of the school board. That might have been why they were chosen to make the peace offering to the pope.

But Ryan's death -- and the way it profoundly challenged their faith in God -- had a lot to do with it, too. Perhaps everything to do with it.

"I think it's Ryan's gift to us," Patricia McDonnell said, a latent sadness still in her eyes. "This day is a gift to us."

A gift to an entire city.

Seldom has Baltimore had a more festive and emotional event, and the weather was superb. The day was washed in the gentle October light that put a soft edge on everything and cast long shadows across the bright green grass of the Camden Yards outfield. The almost constant breezes lifted the yellow-and-white papal flag beyond the altar. It would have been a perfect day for a World Series game.

Gray-haired bishops in cream robes, deaf children in ethnic costumes of four dozen nations, Catholic school kids in red and yellow and white T-shirts, gospel singers, Boyz II Men, a papal wave in the stands -- it was We Are The World meets Up With People.

After the pope made his entrance and removed to the robing tent behind the altar, everyone calmed down, incidental organ music played, and Oriole Park became a great outdoor church -- so silent, at one point, that all that could be heard was the whining of a few small children.

During Mass, there was a moment when the only sound was the jangling of metal as the pope moved about the altar with the gold thurible. Where once was the smell of hot dogs -- in center field, just below the bleachers -- was now the aroma of High Mass.

Where once was the roar of the crowd was now the quiet of a chapel.

At the center of the day was the pope, seated on his throne, his famous meditative countenance instilling in his flock contemplation on family, friends, and all that stirs about in the world outside the stadium -- from the streets of Baltimore to the roads of rural Bosnia, from the huge miseries that afflict masses of people to the personal sorrows of families like the McDonnells.

"Some Catholics may be tempted to grow discouraged and not trust in God," the pope said during his homily at Mass. "The prophet Habakkuk instead exhorts us to 'wait for God' and to trust patiently in his justice; the cross of Christ reveals the Lord's constant presence in our trials and his promise of new life. This is our faith and the witness we bear."

"It was really hard for us to keep our faith when we lost Ryan," Patricia McDonnell said.

"The pope is here, and he's as close to God as we can be, and I believe God and Ryan is telling us He didn't forsake us. He just needed Ryan. It took me a year to be able to say that."

That's her faith speaking -- faith strengthened yesterday in the morning sun by the hand of the vicar of Christ.