There is a lot of talk in Communion and Liberation about following, and I am a literal person. So just past the midpoint of an extraordinary weekend at the New York Encounter, January 14–17, I told my friend Matt that I would follow him. It was Sunday morning and time for Mass in the Hammerstein Ballroom of the Manhattan Center, which was built as an opera house by Oscar Hammerstein in 1906 and still looks it. We were staying at the New Yorker Hotel, around the corner on 8th Avenue, and even being in Matt’s company that morning was itself the result of following. . . .
I had checked in Friday evening and found no roommate assigned to me in the double room on the 24th floor of the New Yorker, which was not much bigger than a monk’s cell, notwithstanding the twin beds wedged into it. I expected that, as at past CL gatherings, I would be assigned a roommate, but Friday night passed and I attended Saturday morning’s events without a sign. Then, after Saturday lunch, I returned to the room and found strange books on the table between the beds.
Damn! The beauty of regional events, or national ones like this, is that there are great opportunities for following. I have told myself at such events that all I have to do is keep my focus on Christ and it is a certainty that He will surprise me. The friends I have made! However, where this weekend’s roommate was concerned I had already decided that I didn’t need any surprises. Solitude was working just fine, thank you, Lord. So now, Christ, what exactly did you have in mind? I furtively picked up the books one at a time and found Matt’s last name written on the bottom one. My disappointment immediately changed to wonder. I had met Matt at a CL Vacation in 2009 and we had become friends, though I seldom had a chance to see him. Cool!
Matt and I bumped into each other in the hallway Saturday afternoon, and I told him we were roommates. His instant look of happy surprise mirrored my own. By the time Mass began the following morning, we had shared a meal and good fellowship. Matt was a more-than-compatible roommate, although he does have a habit of snorting and thrashing about in his bed covers like a pig wallowing in mud when he has decided it is time to fall asleep. Fortunately, based on the evidence of two consecutive nights, I can witness that this display only lasts about 20 seconds.
Into the Hammerstein opera space I followed Matt. The orchestra section, split latitudinally by a center aisle, was already close to full. Like a snowplow, Matt pushed his way through the crowd in the left aisle and turned right at the center break. By this point, I was silently thinking, Not going to find seats this close, brother. I raised my eyes and found Matt standing beside two empty seats that were absolutely perfectly dead center: on the open aisle and seemingly guarded for us by a pair of elderly African American women, plus an enormous pile of winter coats. Matt asked if the two vacant seats were available, and the older of the two women waggled a finger, twinkled an eye, and nodded, Unh-huh!
Her name was Regina, as I discovered when I introduced myself to the woman on my left. Matt did likewise with the lady to his right. It turned out that Regina was the mother, aunt, and perhaps even grandmother of several of the women who—as the Gospel Lites from the Church of St. Charles Borromeo on 141st Street in Harlem—were now warming up on stage. Regina proudly pointed in the Mass program to the one of four recessional hymns for which her daughter would be singing solo. Meanwhile, a great-granddaughter laid a head on Regina’s lap, shyly avoiding my eye.
After a couple of minutes’ conversation with Regina, I looked toward the stage and became aware of a remarkable sight. The two rear rows of the front section immediately across the aisle were filled with veils! Nuns—there must have been thirty of them—and all in full habit except what must have been the novices—and so young! For a Catholic, even a Catholic of recent vintage like myself, a community of nuns dressed in traditional fashion is a glorious sight, and the glorious sounds emanating from the rehearsal on stage, and maybe Regina’s easy sway and silent finger-snapping as she listened, now moved me to get off my feet and introduce myself to some of the nuns.
They were the Sisters of Life, “a contemplative/active religious community of women founded in 1991 by John Cardinal O’Connor for the protection and enhancement of the sacredness of every human life.” As their Web site goes on to say, they have a rich apostolate:
- We welcome pregnant guests to live with us in the Holy Respite of one of our convents
- Assist pregnant women in need of practical assistance through our Visitation Mission
- Host retreats at Villa Maria Guadalupe Retreat Center
- Invite those who have suffered abortion to hope and healing through day and weekend Entering Canaan Retreats
- Direct the New York Archdiocesan Family Life/Respect Life Office
- Dr. Joseph Stanton Human Life Issues Library
I had tapped gently on the shoulder of one young nun to start the conversation, but by the time the lights dimmed, signaling the start of Mass, several of the beautiful young women had turned toward me and were explaining their order, their life, their joy. I sat back down again beside Regina just as she jumped to her feet, swaying and dancing and singing along with the processional hymn. I realized in an instant that she was the only person not on stage who was on her feet, so I . . . followed. I stood beside Regina and danced too. Then Matt followed me, and with a bit of urging most of the people in the Hammerstein ballroom were on their feet and dancing to the hallelujahs of the Gospel Lites.
I looked forward and watched the Sisters of Life. In the sea of young heads, there was one elderly one, probably no older than me, in her 50s, but so much older than the average that the immediate thought was, Mother Superior. I noticed that, while the younger women stood swaying imperceptibly but definitely not clapping their hands yet, Mother Superior began to sway a bit more perceptibly, and then her hands, still clutching the Mass program, approached one another and began tapping gently. By the end of the hymn, the Sisters of Life were not just tapping but clapping, while Regina clapped and sang loudest of all.
The Gospel Lites sang Mass parts that were as respectful as they were stirring. Only at the end of Mass, when the program called for four rousers in succession, did they really let loose. The celebrant, a bishop from Chile, and the pair of American priests flanking him all exchanged smiles that threatened to break out all over their faces as they waited for the final verse of the first recessional hymn, then filed off stage. Regina and the Sisters of Life were still swaying. What could I do but follow?