"I'm Going 'Down There' - Forever"
San Gennaro Mission - 2019
Back Entrance, St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, Mulberry and Prince, SoHo. We’ve deployed our missionary team, 12 strong, strategically along the street fair on Mulberry Street, along with our normal “hot” stations on Prince and Mott and the front of the church. Within, the prayer team and back of the church crew have been busy all night with incomings from the streets. Our three priests are hearing confessions with no break. Out at the back entrance, two missionaries stand with the Pope cutout and the Confession sign they’ve hung nearby. Despite the misty rain, revelers from Mulberry seem drawn to the Pope, and many are pausing for photos with him. A large percentage of these are being ushered into the church by the two missionaries: Catholics, “fallen away” Catholics, Protestants, Muslims (two at least), and yes, a self-declared “agnostic” who goes into the church to light a candle and pray and emerges with a smile. Through the course of the night, we are receiving our usual share of hugs from beaming souls emerging from St. Patrick’s that have been suddenly, and in their eyes surprisingly, restored, through the sacrament of reconciliation…. Early on in the evening, a fit, well-groomed middle-aged man pauses as he walks down Mulberry towards the sausage vendors, and stands silently in front of the Confession sign. A missionary approaches him. “Hello, sir. How about coming into the church for a quick visit?” “No, I can’t do that. Not now.” “No time like the present!” “The ‘present’ is where I live, Steve.” “Only the present?” A long discussion ensues. Peter is a well-formed Catholic, raised in the faith by a strict Catholic mother. But along the way, something happened. He began living a lifestyle which is sinful in the eyes of the church. Around the same time, one of the priests in his parish back in England was accused of molesting altar boys. Peter was scandalized and spoke up about it. His parish priest turned on him, and according to Peter, “excommunicated me.” “So now, I’m done for. I know I’m heading ‘down there’ and there’s nothing I can do about it. So no, I’m not going into that church.” The missionary is gasping for air. The theme of this year’s mission is the eternal, and within 60 minutes of the mission’s opening, he’s encountered a soul consciously grappling with this very thing. “No coincidences.” And on top of this, while Peter himself, like all of us, clearly has sins to overcome, another issue at play here is that of influence, and the role each of us play in influencing others to the good, and sometimes to the bad. This “just happened” to be the topic of the previous night’s 9/11 gospel reflection out in the harbor (“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Mt 18:6)… “Peter, what do you think ‘down there’ is like?” “Not good, but maybe not so bad. Maybe a kind of void.” “A void without God.” A long pause. “Peter, do you think God wants you to be there?” “Probably.” “Let me assure you, most definitely, NOT!” “How do you know?” The missionary places his hand on Peter’s shoulder lovingly, and looks deeply into his eyes. Both of them are tearing up. “I know because we are all His beloved children. All of us. Everyone one of His creations. And that includes you.” “But I’ve been excommunicated.” “Look, Peter, I’m not a priest. But I really don’t think you’ve been excommunicated based on what you’re telling me here. Yes, maybe you’ve been told you cannot receive communion until you’re contrite and resolute about changing what you’re doing, but excommunication is very unlikely. And not for someone like you who clearly loves the Lord and knows the faith. Please, come into the church. Speak to one of our priests here. Maybe they can help you work through this.” “I can’t, Steve. Not now. Not at this point in my life. Give me another 10 years or so. Maybe then I can fix this.” “Take a step now, Peter. One small step. Come in, light a candle. You are welcome here. You are a beloved son of God.” “Not now, Steve. Not now.” And with that, Peter walks off into the rain. Towards the neon lights and haze of Mulberry Street. Towards eternity.
A missionary September 12, 2019