This article was originally posted on the Regnum Christi New York website.
Last night was another one of those nights where you start out wondering “Why?” and “Are we nuts?”, and end up utterly overwhelmed by the grace and power of God. In His hands, what seemed like “Mission Impossible” melted by evening’s end into “How did this happen?”
The evening began with blessings and prayers for our group of missionaries and priests, initially about a dozen, including a wonderfully joyful group of Rutgers students in from New Brunswick, and other newcomers including someone from Bob’s trading desk in NY and a member of our St Pat’s (NJ) Gospel group. These fresh troops gave all of us energy. The missionaries were chomping at the bit at HQ while we completed assignments, and soon they were out and about on the byways of the parish.
It started as a cold, quiet evening. Folks generally hurrying to get to dinner and out of the bone-chilling weather. Msgr. Sakano had prepared small missionary greeting cards with a picture of Pope Francis on them. These were spectacularly popular, and seemed to break the ice, literally. Within the first hour, we’d already given away over a hundred. The Pope’s popularity extends beyond Catholics, and even an atheist stopped and asked for a card, declaring “I love the Pope! You guys are doing great!”. Wow!
Soon, Grace (of “Delivered by Grace” fame) arrived, a ball of activity setting up the special candlelight Adoration planned for later that evening. More troops– RC, Lumen. The parish young adult group, etc! More activity. More priests. And then, emerging from their group prayer in the Church before our Lord, the atomic weapon: the Sisters of Life. Goodness gracious! Some of the more experienced missionaries actually felt that with these joyful, radiant, holy women at our sides, it was almost like cheating. Suddenly, everyone wanted a candle, a chance to pray in the Church. From there, between our group of missionaries in the Church and the Holy Spirit, off to confession! By now, we had five priests fully engaged, and many of the penitents were of the now usual variety, as in “Confession? I haven’t done that in years!”
The stories started to drown me. Many reminded me of my frequent admonition to the many young people who find our way to our home in NJ over the summers: “choose your friends wisely.” In some cases, those friends literally pulled people out of our hands, into the darkness. In others, the opposite. In a new variant of our seemingly annual dog story, a couple with a dog initially declared “We’re not Catholics!”. Finally, the wife said she’d like to go in and light a candle, while the husband stayed with the dog on the corner. On the way to the Church, the woman confided that while she was Jewish, her husband was Catholic. Finally, she went back to the corner and convinced him to come in to pray, while one of our missionaries guarded the dog….
We had two different instances of people signing up to join us on the spot. One, an artist, had circled one of our missionaries twice before Bob and Faris grabbed him. After a long time in Church with a priest, he emerged joyfully and determined to join us, even offering to do a series of paintings for auction at next year’s Gala! Later, a group of former “Missionarias” from Mexico stopped on their way to dinner; they determined to cancel their tour plans for tomorrow and join us on the streets.
The scene out on the street corners and in front of the Church increasingly took on the mood of a festival; everyone seemed to be stopping, joining in the cheer. In a kind of “Little Drummer Boy” moment, and old man who worked at the New Museum down the street, in gratitude for our gifts of candles, rosaries, and prayer cards, reached into his bag for a harmonica. In a quiet, joyful melody, he played for us a very special hymn– the Salve Regina.
Sisters Antoniana and Veronica were particularly unbelievable. People simply melted in their joyful hands. Their entire routine consisted of inviting people on the corner to light a candle, then walking them to the church, talking joyfully along the way. By the time they got to Church, they were best friends, and many would return later to the corner to hug them as if they’d known them their whole lives. The whole movement was so natural, it seemed like they were simply running a kind of pre-planned ushering service; neither of them needed to stand on the corner for more than a minute before they were escorting yet another happy person or group of persons off to Church for a candlelight visit with our Lord!
As we moved closer to our 9:00 ending time, none of the missionaries, despite by now being half frozen to the bone, wanted to leave their posts. Finally, at 8:55, I did so, to spend a brief moment with the Lord. As I entered the Church, I nearly broke down in tears. From out on the streets, it had been hard to imagine the scene within. As the musicians strummed a joyful Spanish hymn on their guitars, nearly 100 people were on their knees, praying with the Lord. Our five priests were all busy with penitents. And at the center of it all, lit by the candles of those present and others who’d already left with spirits renewed, was our Lord, on the altar. Thinking back to how quietly the evening had begun, and seeing this multitude of souls before God at the conclusion, I found myself in awe at His power, grace, and love Ringing in my ears were the words of that lovely little bundle of joy, Sister Antoniana, “All you have to do is ask.”