Back Entrance to St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, Mulberry Street, SoHo. As my missionary partner “Chevy” and I exited the cathedral with our fresh supply of votive candles, I knew immediately that something was wrong. Cherie stood alone hailing bystanders, but Charlie “the Hat” was gone—and so was the Pope! Well, not actually the Pope, but in New York City, the nearest best thing, our life-sized cardboard cut- out of him. All night long, the Pope, along with the statue of Padre Pio to his right, were helping us gather in the fallen away Catholics sauntering up and down Mulberry, seeking entertainment. The Lord told us be “fishers of men”, and that was precisely what was going on here. Catholics seemed drawn like fish to a lure when they spied the Pope or Padre Pio, and inevitably would pause for photo with one of them. We had stationed our six missionaries for this station at a discreet distance, often lost in the crowd. Once a soul stopped for the photo, though, a missionary would greet them and start a lively, and loving, dialogue unlike any they’d had that night out with the hawkers on Mulberry. From there, it wouldn’t take long, frankly, to get them into the church, at least to light a candle, and hopefully confession. We were so close to the exit that at least a few times during these entreaties, just at the moment a missionary would be highlighting the uplifting effect of receiving reconciliation from a priest after many years away, a glowing penitent would literally coming floating out of the church and interrupt to give us a hug! Yes, our nets were full, even bursting. Until the Pope got himself kidnapped.
As soon as Cherrie told me what had happened, I knew who the culprit was. Almost from the start of the mission at 4:00, a very inebriated reveler from down the street had stationed himself nearby us, heckling, and at times parrying, for a chance to grab the Pope. When Charlie turned his back while speaking with a family of Catholics passing by, the man swooped in and made off with the Pope, towards Houston. Charlie pursued him as far as Bleecker, but when he refused to give back the Pope, Charlie called 911. “Hello, this is a missionary out on Bleecker and Mulberry. I’ve got a situation here….” “Describe the man, please.” “Well, he’s middle-aged…. And carrying the Pope with him.” “Describe the Pope please. What Pope?” “THE Pope. He’s got a life-sized image of the Pope! Just Google “Pope Francis” and you’ll have it. You can’t miss him! He’s heading north on Lafayette!” Fortunately, the men in blue are very fond of the missionaries in this neighborhood. Over the years, they’ve received many prayers, rosaries, and in a few cases, confessions. “We’re on it!” Thirty minutes later, Charlie returns, with the Pope. Business picks up almost immediately.
Another secret weapon last night was Fr. Stephen’s squadron of teens from St. Peter’s in Yonkers. Well-formed, joyful, and determined missionary veterans, within five minutes of managing the relatively safe station in front of the cathedral which I’d assigned them to, they told Father, “This is too boring.” So the whole team of joyful Catholics marched off down into the depths of the festival on Mulberry. Our veteran cupcake crew, Cathy and Ken, immediately took off in their wake as wing men. Although the kids reported low response rates, we experienced something very different up at the northern end of Mulberry near the church. My conclusion from years of doing this is that while the crowd pouring north seemed uninterested, the Mulberry Street evangelists had planted the seed of the Holy Spirit in their hearts, and by the time they reached the missionaries outside the back entrance of the church with the Pope, they were ready for a deeper conversation. Our success rate, often 40 or even 60 to one on other nights, rose to 10 to one at points….
About 8:00 that night, in his inspiring homily at the Mass which ended the evening. Fr. Daniel spoke directly to the many missionaries gathered, finally together, before the Lord. The candles of the souls they’d brought in from the streets—around 250 of them – burned brightly before the altar and around the side altars as well. Father spoke of how we are all called to be apostles, as tough as it is to be one in a rough neighborhood like New York, where even the Pope can be stolen if he’s not tied down. Then he spoke in broad terms about the souls he’d met in the confessionals. “Missionaries, I just want to tell you how, as a priest, I am overwhelmed tonight with love. The souls you were brought in had no plans to go to confession tonight, in fact, most had not been to the sacrament of reconciliation for many, many years. Most thought they were unforgivable. And tonight, the course of their lives has been changed—suddenly, dramatically, unexpectedly. And, with the grace of God and our continued prayers, maybe for eternity.”
September 14, 2019