Papal Visit Preview: A family of faith

The welcome wagon: The Bowes family leaves the church after Mass at Saint Christopher on Sept. 13. Richard and Bernadette Bowes are pictured with their children (from left) Gabrielle, Riley and Matthew. All five family members will join Archbishop Charles Chaput in greeting the pontiff when he steps from his charter flight at the Atlantic Aviation terminal at Philadelphia International Airport. SOURCE: TOM GRALISH / PHILLY.COM

At a time when Rick Bowes’ faith might have wavered, circumstances only strengthened his family’s bond with the Lord.

Those were the days, weeks and years, in fact, following the slaying of Philadelphia Highway Patrol Officer Patrick McDonald by a fleeing fugitive on Sept. 23, 2008, an episode during which Bowes suffered critical gunshot wounds and was left no choice but to kill the man who had murdered his colleague.

Bowes might have asked God why he had to lose a fellow police officer and close friend, why he had to endure debilitating injuries, why he had to leave the job that he loved and why he had to claim another man’s life. But he didn’t.

On the contrary, Bowes turned to his wife and three children for strength while praising God’s mercy. The Bowes family’s enduring faith, in spirit and in practice, is why they were chosen to represent the entire Archdiocese of Philadelphia in greeting Pope Francis upon his arrival in the city on Sept. 26 for the World Meeting of Families, according to Monsignor Joseph Garvin, pastor of St. Christopher Church in Somerton.

Donna Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families, announced the family’s selection for the honor after the 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. Christopher’s on Sunday. Parishioners applauded while the Bowes were shocked and brought to tears.

“The incident was only a small element in the thinking,” said Garvin, explaining why he had recommended the Bowes family to Farrell. “That’s long in the past. I’ve been their pastor for years, and they are lovely people. I would’ve nominated them even if he hadn’t been in an incident like that.”

Rick and Bernadette Bowes are celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary today. They have a son Matthew, 12, and two daughters, Riley, 11, and Gabrielle, 9. Rick is a graduate of Ascension of Our Lord School in Kensington and North Catholic High. Bernadette graduated from St. Martha School and Archbishop Ryan. Their children all attend St. Christopher’s.

All five family members will join Archbishop Charles Chaput in greeting the pontiff when he steps from his charter flight at the Atlantic Aviation terminal at Philadelphia International Airport at about 9:30 a.m. The parents don’t quite know how they’ll handle meeting the supreme leader of the Catholic Church, successor to the apostle St. Peter.

“I think I’ll be more starstruck. I don’t know what I’d say. I’ll hope for a blessing for my family,” said Rick Bowes, who spent 19 years with the police department.

“I would just ask for blessings for our families and all police officers, firefighters and emergency personnel,” Bernadette Bowes said. “And there’s a lot of turmoil in the world, so I’d just ask for peace.”

Rick Bowes and his family have overcome plenty of their own tumultuous times with the power of prayer, they say.

Seven years ago, Rick was a member of the Philadelphia Police Department’s elite Highway Patrol Unit, a group of officers often described as the department’s version of special forces, trained to tackle the most challenging tasks the city has to offer.

Bowes and McDonald were among a group of Highway cops assigned to patrol a high-crime area of North Philadelphia when McDonald stopped a suspicious car. The vehicle had a broken taillight, but when McDonald questioned the woman driver and man in the passenger seat, something seemed awry.

Suddenly the passenger bolted from the car and McDonald gave chase. After several blocks, McDonald caught him and began to wrestle him to the ground. Police later learned that the man was a convicted armed robber with two active arrest warrants.

During the scuffle, the man pulled out a gun and shot McDonald numerous times. He then turned his weapon toward other onrushing officers. One bullet struck Bowes in the hip, but he fired back and wounded the gunman fatally.

McDonald passed away that night at a local hospital. Bowes survived a shattered pelvis and detached groin and hamstring muscles. But his road to recovery was long and hard with seven separate surgeries and several hospital stays. He was out of work for five years.

“I never questioned my faith. I believe (the experience) made it stronger because the doctors told my wife it was a miracle I was still alive and that I’d be able to walk again,” Rick Bowes said.

“The day that it happened, the trauma doctors told me it was a miracle he was alive and that he was able to do what he did that day. I just thank God for him being here,” Bernadette Bowes said. “I said, ‘OK God, you put him here and everything will take care of itself.’ It was tough but I had faith that we would get there and he would do what he had to do. I believe we got such a gift that day.”

Rick Bowes was determined to return to his beloved Highway Patrol. But it wasn’t to be. He eventually became an investigator for the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office. And he became closer than ever with his family.

“(As a police officer) Ricky worked all the time. So he got to have five amazing years with our children during his recovery, five amazing years to watch our kids grow,” Bernadette said.

The Bowes suffered another tribulation recently when Bernadette’s mother passed away, but they received another gift on Sunday. Only Rick knew about the Papal meeting in advance. Garvin had confided in him to ensure that the announcement would transpire without a hitch.

But even in church, as Farrell read a description of an anonymous parish family that had overcome a violent tragedy, Bernadette had no idea it was hers.

“I was thinking, ‘How do I not know that somebody in our parish went through this?’ ” Bernadette recalled.

Then Farrell read their names and reality set in.

“It was priceless, the look in their faces,” Rick Bowes said. “(The kids) were ecstatic. Their eyes were wide open the whole time. My youngest, Gabrielle, broke out into tears.”

“I believe it’s because of divine providence,” Garvin said. “One thing led to another and the first family that came to mind was the Bowes family. They have three great kids. Ricky almost lost his life. His partner died and every day he gets up and says, ‘It could’ve been me.’ … This is my 19th year here at St. Chris and (Sunday) was my most joyful day.” ••

Greeting the pope: Monsignor Joe Garvin (right) greets the Bowes family after they were surprised during Mass at Saint Christopher on Sunday, learning they have been chosen by the World Meeting of Families to greet Pope Francis when he arrives at the airport in Philadelphia. Richard and Bernadette Bowes are with children Riley, 11; Matthew, 12; and Gabrielle, 9. SOURCE: TOM GRALISH / PHILLY.COM