The Path to Eternity
Pittsburgh, Pa. Second day of Lent. I’m here for a management meeting, whisking in from the airport, and contemplating what happened in SoHo last night. What an incredible, blessed Ash Wednesday! Our entire band of 25+ missionaries, seasoned veterans along with several joyful and very effective newcomers, feel so blessed, so humbled to have been used by the Lord in such a powerful collective experience. Last night, the neighborhood seemed to embrace, yes Love, the missionaries, and souls were raked into the church from all corners around the parish, even, or maybe especially, from the outer posts a couple of blocks away. In my own pathetic case, I am in awe at the mystery of how this working class kid from Newark, fallen from the Faith and then re-found, could have just experienced a day like that. Early that morning, on Fox Business with Maria Bartiromo, giving some calm, longer-term perspective on the present stock market crisis to her viewers. We chatted further during the commercial break, and as I left the set, I launched the day’s mission: “Happy Ash Wednesday everyone! Don’t forget your ashes!” Later, at a major investment meeting following news that Corona had possibly arrived in NYC, I reminded one of my teams, “This is the ‘Be Not Afraid'” moment we prepared for. Be confident! And, by the way, it’s also not a bad time to consider getting your spiritual life in order. Just sayin’.” Later, on the streets of SoHo, this message seemed to resonate. Was it the normal tug of Ash Wednesday? The joy of the new missionaries among us? The Corona scare? Or maybe the Holy Spirit Himself responding to all the above, and being there for us when we most needed Him? Whatever, New York last night seemed to be searching for a safe path to eternity and out there on the streets, they found it. In the image of the cross emblazoned on the forehead of His missionaries, and on the many, many penitents flooding about the cathedral with ashes on their foreheads. Walking billboards for Christ, if you will. Here are just a handful of their stories.
“Back in Business”
St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, SoHo. I arrive at the church mid-afternoon, delayed by events in the market. Doug Dewey and his merry band of volunteers from midtown are already in place on the streets, stirring up souls. The joyful little “missionary in the back of the church”, Evelyn, has already completed the training for Doug’s crew and is now ushering souls to the confessional. The line is seven deep. “Steve! Where have you been! We need priests down here! We only have one and we can’t hold some of these in line much longer. Most of them didn’t plan this, haven’t been to confession in years, and are getting cold feet. And I’m running out of Confession Preparation Guides!” I give her a kiss, hand her a stack of confession guides, and grab four seminarians from faraway Cheshire who arrive at just this critical juncture. “Ok brothers! The five us are the prayer platoon! I know you are anxious to hit the streets, but we need priests right now. We can’t get very far without His priests! So the five of us are going to kneel and pray to Him until some priests show up.” Within 15 minutes, Fr. Graebe arrives. Then, 10 minutes later, two more Legionaries from Rye. Back in business. Thank you Lord.
“Anger Melts before Love”
4:30 St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, Front Gate. The atheists seem on their back feet tonight, upset by the holy commotion around them. Some are openly hostile. As I filter out of the church from bringing a penitent in, I hear one’s angry response to our front of the church crew, manned by two new missionaries still bravely trying to find their comfortable ‘pick up line.’ “Would you like a rosary sir?” I hear Jim ask softly. “A___holes! Go F___ yourselves!!!” an angry young man growls back. He’s trying for a hit and run, rushing past the church crew fixed in their assigned posts at the front gate. Bad luck. An at-large missionary, accustomed to street talk, joins him at his swift retreat south towards Spring. “”Wow! You seem pretty angry. Having a bad day?” “Not at all,” he counters, in an angry but softening tone. “Well, you sure sound like you are. I’ll pray you find some peace.” The atheist doesn’t know what to say now. Nothing left but, “Thank you.” Hopefully, we planted a seed here. At the moment, our ‘hit and run atheist’ experienced a little love, and had no response. A start.
“Eternity 1, Nothing 0”
4:45 pm, Houston and Mulberry. Later, out on busy Houston Street, a missionary encounters another ‘None’. He’s in a better mood, but still a bit passive aggressive. “I don’t want to screw you up, or anything, and I was a Catholic once myself. But then I realized it’s all for nothing. This is it. Here today. Gone tomorrow. ” “Jim, you mean there’s no God?” “I doubt it. And it’s just too crazy to think we are somehow the center of the universe.” “Jim, there’s something we have in common! And actually, that thought demonstrates you have one of the great foundational virtues of the spiritual life.” “What?!?” “Humility. You see, we Christians believe that God is the center of the universe that He created, not us at all. He’s the ‘alpha and the omega.’ And we’re not. That’s why we need Him to reach eternity, to reach heaven.” “Except I don’t believe in eternity. Unfortunately, this it.” “Jim, how did we get here?” “From nothing.” “Wow! The second big spiritual virtue we have in common! ‘Faith.'” “Now wait a minute here…” “Jim, I’m here for you. But think on this. You choose to believe that everything came from nothing. I believe that everything came from something. We’re both people of Faith.” “Hmmmm….” “And maybe just one more thought for you. If when we die, and there is nothing, I’m none the worse for it. But…. if there is something, I guess I win and you lose. For eternity.” Jim has to run. On his trip to nowhere. But he has a smile on his face, and a new thought in his heart. “Goodbye Jim”, the missionary offers as he saunters off thoughtfully into the night. “I’ll pray for you.” “Thank you.” Eternity 1. Nothing, 0.
“Two ‘Nones’ stop for a prayer“
5:00 pm, Spring and Mott. Later, out on Spring and Mott, Brothers Diego and Francisco meet a young man hurrying off to an appointment. A self-proclaimed ‘None.’ No interest in going to the church, but clearly struggling with something. The brothers engage him lovingly, then hold hands with him in a prayer on the street corner. “Steve. I’m pinching myself. Here we are on a cold and busy night in New York City. Cars beeping. People buzzing around us. And somehow the Lord brought us someone who needed us, who us probably searching for Him even though he doesn’t know it. Incredible. “
5:15 pm Prince and Mulberry. A new missionary, Michael, finds another ‘None’ out in the darkness. He’s rushing past, but Michael engages him humbly, joyfully. “What’s going on with all these ash marks I’m seeing on people’s heads around this neighborhood?”, he asks. “That’s an ash mark of the cross. It is both a remind us that before long we are all going to die– to return to ash- and that, through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross, we have a door open to us to eternity, to heaven.” “Wow, that’s deep.” “Would you like to come in for a visit?” Incredibly, the ”None’ says, “Ok, let’s try.” Together, they enter the church, and light a candle at a statue of the Virgin. They join in a prayer. “Ashes?” “Not tonight, Mike. That’s a little too heavy for me. Let me think about that for next time.”
5:30 pm. St Patrick’s Old Cathedral. As a Missionary is bringing another couple in for ashes, Diego taps him on the shoulder. He breaks out in Spanish, “Steve. It’s me! Remember earlier you gave me a rosary and I promised to come back for confession! Well, I’m off work now and I’m here!” My Spanish is frankly terrible but somehow the Lord is helping me help Diego, even as I am also escorting this lovely couple from Queens to the church. As we get to the back, the Lord solves another problem! Maria Sanzo, our close friend from Madrid, has just arrived to help! “Maria, Diego here would like to go to confession in Spanish. Can you help him?” Maria launched into a joyful, high speed Spanish dialog with Diego. He instantly is calm. “This guy promised me a priest who can speak Spanish and by golly, he really meant it. Wow!” his peaceful face seems to be thinking. I leave him in good hands and head back to the streets. On all corners near the church, our new and veteran missionaries are all engaged in conversation. Double Wow!
“Spiritual but not religious.”
5:45 pm. Spring and Mulberry. Out on Spring and Mulberry, a missionary finds Andrew, a well-dressed young man on his way to a date.. “Spiritual but not religious.” “How’s that going for you?” “Ok, I guess… well, not great.” Andrew is in a hurry, so the pair walk together…. towards the Basilica. Andrew was long ago an altar boy in England, part of “The Order of St. Stephen.” That’s odd, Andrew. Do you know my name? It’s ‘Stephen.'”. By the time we get to the church, Andrew has changed his mind. He goes in for ashes. Later, he comes back out, and finds the missionary, already engaged with another couple. “Thank you for being out here tonight. I never ever would have done that otherwise. That was really beautiful. “
“Never Too Late”
6:15 pm, Little Italy. Brother Pablo has found an old man out and about the neighborhood, who “used to be Catholic, a long time ago.” He’s noticed everyone in SoHo seems to have a cross of ash on their heads. “You can get one too!” Together, they take a long walk to the church. Fallen away, George is now 85 years old. On the edge of eternity. “I guess it’s too late for me now, Brother.” “George, it’s never too late to come home. Your Father still loves you. He’s waiting for you.” George receives ashes, then Reconciliation. Later, he finds Br. Pablo. He hugs him, crying. “Brother, thank you for bringing me in. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it took me so long to surrender to God. But thanks to you, I finally did.”
6:30 pm , St Patrick’s Old Cathedral, SoHo. I arrive back from out on the busy periphery. The chaos of mid-afternoon has now settled in to a well-oiled, soul-saving saving machine. All three confessions lines are well formed, with several missionaries now ushering souls to confession stations around the cathedral. In the narthex, another missionary is ‘dog-sitting’ for a penitent– the second such instance I’ve witnessed tonight. Out on Prince and Mott, Bob is engaged with a middle aged woman, gesticulating softly about grace, love, mercy, eternity. A penitent walks out of the church, and waves gratefully in his direction. “How did it go, Joe?” I hear Bob ask. Joe beans back, joyfully, and raises his right thumb to heaven. To eternity.
6:55 pm. St Patrick’s Old Cathedral. Our theme this mission has been “transformation”– of the souls brought in, literally, from the cold. And importantly, of the missionaries themselves. All around me, the Lord is presenting me with overwhelming evidence on both fronts. The Basilica itself is packed with souls for the 7:00 Mass, standing room only. I have never experienced this on a simple Ash Wednesday evening. In the narthex and still outside the church on the streets, our missionaries are bustling around joyfully, bringing in the last souls of the night. They are now full of joy and confidence, transformed from the apprehensive crew of mid-afternoon with just one priest and angry atheists cursing at them just outside the parish gates. Jim, assigned there all night, says it all when I tell him it’s time to quit and go to Mass. “Steve, is it ok if I stay out here? I’ve been to two Masses already uptown and I’m more useful out here, outside the wall. There may still be a few more souls to bring home. “
March 27, 2020