It began on Salem Common in the summer of 2000. A youth group gathered for Mass in a public space, having followed the Eucharist in procession from the parish church of the Immaculate Conception.
But for me it began in the summer of 2004 when I nervously accompanied my boyfriend, Domenic Bettinelli, to an event organized by his brother-in-law, Peter Campbell. I watched the children who would one day become my nieces and nephews hug each other and dance and laughing fall to the ground. Something special happened. I knew it was all going to work out somehow. A day filled with unexpected graces.
A year later the event was located for the first time at the Marist House in Framingham. On the eve of our wedding I was surprised to hear my name called out during Mass as one of the intentions read in the Prayers of the Faithful was for our marriage. My sister was there. Throughout the Mass I held the newborn baby who would shortly become my niece.
The next year I cradled my own three-month old daughter. The next year she was a toddler, running around joyfully and her sister was a new life in the womb, just announced and making me more than a bit nauseous. Now we return to Framingham for the fourth time. So many memories in these fields and buildings.
We arrive early, not many people there yet. A familiar face at the gate, a friend’s mother, greeting us and oohing at Sophia and Bella. Yes, “homecoming” might not be overstating it.
We find the two canopies right beyond the entrance (so my mother-in-law recovering from knee surgery won’t have too far to walk. Also helpful with all the babies and gear.) But the family isn’t there yet. We set up camp chairs and port-a-crib and unload the little red wagon. Then head off across the field seeking my brother-in-law, Pete, whose brainchild this is. We don’t find him, but Janice, a friend from church, is manning a table and I stop to chat. Like too many of our friends we haven’t seen her in months, she exclaims over how Sophia has grown.
As we chat I hear the sound of singing: Ave, Ave, Ave Maria. Hushed voices approaching. Glancing over my shoulder I see a group of people moving across the field towards us, a priest in white, a shining monstrance. I drop to my knees and tell Isabella to do the same, “Kneel down on your knees,” I whisper, “There’s Jesus! See Jesus!” I make the sign of the cross and guide her hand and then Sophia’s to do the same.
The procession comes to a halt in front of us. The priest raises the monstrance and the group begins to pray the rosary. “The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple,” I hear someone announce. The woman is too soft spoken, they are too far away, we cannot make out the beginning of each Hail Mary; but we join in with the group for the second half: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Sometime in the middle of the decade a guitar starts to warm up on the main stage. It should be jarring and incongruous but somehow isn’t. It’s all praise. On the fringes of my awareness people move about, setting up chairs, greeting friends, moving equipment. But in the center of the field is a small bubble of people kneeling and focused on the miraculous Presence of the Creator of the Universe in a small and unremarkable piece of bread.
We complete the decade, Oh My Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the power of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most need of thy mercy, and the procession moves on toward the Marian grotto where the Blessed Sacrament will remain on a small stone altar throughout the afternoon while the pilgrims come to adore Him.
We stand and turn toward the vendor tent. Smiling at acquaintances, meeting people I only have known through the blogs, browsing through children’s books—a couple of great finds I’ll have to blog on later. Bella and Sophia attract attention, smiles, comments. Dealing with crowds is so much easier for me with a baby in a carrier or a toddler in my hand. An automatic conversation starter.
Dom meets some Franciscan brothers, greets one whom he recognizes, and introduces us. Brother Sean radiates the joy of the Holy Spirit as he flirts with Sophia and bends to chat with Bella. It’s infectious, I feel a profound peace just looking at them. I love the little brothers of St. Francis. In their radical simplicity they are fools for Christ, what the Flower Children of the Sixties should have been, could have been had they been truly radical. This is the real deal, though, real love, real purpose: love of Christ.
When we return to the canopies to change diapers and eat lunch the family is arriving. A Portuguese band sings on stage: God is ten. An odd idiom—I guess we’d say God is number one—but I get the idea and the music is fun to dance to. I bounce Sophia as I eat my sandwich. I feed grapes and cheese to my niece Cecilia and to Isabella. Another group takes the stage and raps about John Paul II and though I’m not usually a fan of rap I dance Sophia’s legs and she giggles. The girls run around, fall on the grass, hug each other. Bella has a bit of a jealous crying fit when Cecilia grabs her doll but it is soon smoothed over when we find Cecilia’s doll and she graciously hands over Bella’s beloved toy. Even though she is six months younger than Bella, she has three older siblings and infinitely more experience in sharing.
Dom and Bella join a group of cousins heading off the see the Donut Man. Sophia and I depart in the other direction to see my friend Wimsey, now living out of state but back for the weekend. I can’t wait to see her again, let her meet Sophia. A joyful reunion, even though she’s working the ticket booth and the conversation is interrupted by the constant flow of new arrivals. She tells me her nephew is just two days younger than Sophie.
I offer my services as a guide to a young girl who is clutching a stuffed donut. “I know where the Donut Man is. i can show you,” I tell her, “My daughter is there watching.” Her mother gratefully releases her to the charge of an older brother and sister and I guide them to their destination and then depart to hunt down more friends.
Tara is in her usual place organizing the priests and penitents in the are set aside for Confession. I give her a big hug and she gushes to see Sophia. “I’ll be back,” I say. The little voice of doubt is gnawing. I can’t quite bring myself to sit in front of a priest just yet. And Sophia is rubbing her eyes sleepily. Instead, I find myself drawn to the tent where adoration is going on.
I walk through a crowd of kneeling people to a place near the front and sink to my knees, steadying Sophie. A barefoot man strums a guitar and sings quietly, Holy, Holy, Holy. A woman behind me prays a rosary, I hear the whisper of Hail Marys and catch a glimpse of beads. A great golden monstrance sits on a simple stone altar, gleaming in the sun. Above and to the right a statue of Mary stands and looks down from a stone wall. Below and to the left a statue of St. Bernadette kneels in prayer. People move in and out quietly.
Peace fills the grotto. Peace fills my heart. I slowly trace circles on Sophia’s arm and leg and let her fist curl around my finger. Her eyes blink more and more slowly, her head nods as I sway softly in place. And then she is out. I sink back on my heels and bend to kiss her cheek, raise my eyes again to the Presence on the altar and sing softly along with the singer: I give myself to you, Lord. I give myself to you.
Soon three sisters in black and white move forward and begin to pray the Diving Mercy chaplet, singing in sweet voices: O Blood and Water, which gushed forth from the Heart of Jesus as a Fount of Mercy for us, we trust in you. Sophia sleeps soundly and I sing along: Eternal Father, I offer to you the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Your dearly beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and for the sins of the whole world…. For the sake of His sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world…. Holy God, Holy Mighty One, Holy Immortal One, have mercy upon us and on the whole world.
Sophie sleeps through the entire chaplet and the next few songs after that and then groggily lifts her head and rubs her eyes, my signal to leave. I head back to the line for confessions, longer now but I am ready. The priest recognizes me, though I can’t quite place him. He begins with a little small talk about Sophia and then a blessing. After his absolution and final blessing, he asks after Isabella. I still can’t remember who he is. Ah well. I give Tara another hug before we go. She’s happy to see Sophia a bit more alert. I feel like a new woman, full of grace and peace.
Back to touch base with the family. I trade Dom Sophia for Isabella who accompanies me to get drinks, two Pepsis, and a snack, ice cream sandwiched between two chocolate chip cookies. I hand it over to her and she is surprised and refuses when I ask for a bite: You mean I have to share? But she overcomes her reluctance and I eat about half of it. Then I wipe her face to erase the evidence before we deliver his drink to Dom.
Tony Melendez is on stage, full of energy, and the crowd is warming up. Soon a conga line forms at the foot of the stage. I’m having to take hits from my inhaler, though. It’s amazing to watch him clap with his feet, jumping up and down and rousing the audience to do the same. The Spirit is moving, joy in the faces of everyone I see. Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh. The afternoon goes by in a blur of conversations with friends and family, meetings and greetings, laughing children dancing and jumping and playing and running and throwing handfuls of grass into the air. Bella is in heaven surrounded by “Cousins!” and energized by the music.
When the older cousins depart for something or other and while Sophia is happily entertained on Grandma B’s lap, I take Bella on a little journey and we stop to chat with the Sisters of Our Lady of Mercy. I love these beautiful sisters. I want Bella to meet them and I want to thank them and yet I am so shy it is hard to approach them. Bella gives me the perfect opening, though. I scoop her up in my arms and tell her to “Say hello to the sisters.” I know she won’t say a word, but the sisters beam anyway. I tell them that I have taught Bella to say, “Jesus I trust in you,” when she sees a crucifix. One of the sisters gives her a holy card with the Divine Mercy image on it. I ask Bella if maybe she’ll be a sister when she grows up and sister fingers her habit, “Do you like the way I am dressed?” she asks, “Like St. Faustina.” I mention that we have a relic of St Faustina and we chat a little longer until I realize the sisters are trying to leave. We also stop and say hello to the Daughters of St Paul and look through some of their books. They have a great selection of books on St Paul for the Pauline Year, which sister pointed out to me. She was so filled with joy as she asked if I knew the Holy Father had declared this the Year of St. Paul. I felt bad that I couldn’t buy any books from her but I’d already spent what I could afford at another table.
Before I know it the procession is forming for Mass. Over the heads of the crowd I see the plumed hats of the Knights of Columbus and then Cardinal Sean’s golden miter and the great wooden hook of his crozier. I lift Bella up, “Look, Cardinal Sean.” We sing, Christ be beside me, Christ be before me….
A small hiccup happens as I have to change diapers during the first reading, Bella lying down when she sees that Sophia is getting her diaper changed. And then Sophie gets cranky and needs to be fed. I move to a chair in the back where I won’t be noticed and Sophie falls asleep during the Cardinal’s homily. Which is a great homily: “Bidden or unbidden, invited or uninvited, God is always present.” Dark clouds drift overhead but the sun breaks through just before the consecration. “Of course.” Dom says.
There is something so centered about Mass with the Cardinal. Good meals can be had at many tables; but there is something about returning home to my parents house and having a meal at the table I grew up at. It’s something like that. A feeling of homecoming, of rightness. He binds us together in a way that is different from—but complementary to—the feeling of Mass in Rome with the Pope. Cardinal Sean is not head of the universal Church; but still head. Head here of our local Church. Our shepherd who gathers us and defends us. I feel like a sheep in the safety of the sheepfold.
After communion I’m kneeling, cradling my now awake but still drowsy baby, when I notice a slight commotion in the communion line nearest me. A mother has just received and turns back to her daughter who stands before the priest. They were the last two people in that line. The little girl stands several feet back from the priest, her hands pressed to the sides of her face—like Munch’s painting of The Scream—fearful. As I watch, I begin to suspect she has Down syndrome. She stand there, trembling, yearning. Her eyes pool with tears and her whole body seems filled with conflict. Afraid to approach and yet unable to turn away. Her mother beckons. The priest takes a hesitant step forward, hand outstretched in welcome, benediction. The girl jumps back like a nervous cat, startled, stumbling, afraid. And yet she stares so longingly. They remain in tension. The priest moves again, the girl tries to move and can’t, tearful, fearful. Finally, the mother turns and begins to walk away and after another moment the priest lifts his hand, blesses her with the sign of the cross, and then also turns, reluctant but acknowledging the impasse. And the girl crumbles to the ground in abject anguish as her mother rushes to console her. Tears roll down my face and my heart yearns toward her, praying. She stumbles away, cradled in her mother’s arms. Tears. Anguish. Raw.
Later Dom articulates what my heart understood but my mind couldn’t quite grasp: In her you could see what we all should be at this moment—the fear and awe of the presence of God that made it impossible for her to approach, the hunger that made it impossible for her to leave. She seemed to see, more clearly than any of us, Him Who is Present there.
During the final hymn she approached our family group and began to crawl down between the chairs, seeking a refuge. Her mother approached, apologetic. We brushed away her concern but words couldn’t come that seemed suitable as I watched her hurry away. Later I saw the girl playing with her siblings, tossing a balloon, seemingly content. I’ll never forget that look on her face as she stood there before Christ in the Eucharist, though.
After Mass, more music. High energy and getting higher as the sun sets and people began to pack up. I wander through the crowds with Bella, singing along. At one point I catch a woman’s eye as she approaches, singing, “Come and go with me to my Father’s house,” we sing at each other and smile, sisters, though I don’t know her name and we may never meet. A connection I can’t explain. Joy in the Spirit. Recognition. Love.
The sun sets behind the trees, golden clouds mark its passage. I retire to my mother-in-law’s camper to give Sophia a final snack while Dom packs and Bella romps. I leave a smiling, cooing, full Sophie with Grandma and step out into night. The energy of the evening still bristles like pent lightning; but now it is channeled, a river running swift and deep and silent: a priest places a shining monstrance on the altar and swings a censor. Clouds of smoke drift through the bright stage lights:
O Saving Victim opening wide
The gate of heaven to all below.
Our foes press on from every side;
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.
To Thy great name be endless praise
Immortal Godhead, One in Three;
Oh, grant us endless length of days,
In our true native land with Thee.
I kneel for a while with Bella. O come, let us adore him. We look at the moon, surrounded by a glowing moon bow, the stars. I whisper a prayer of praise and thanksgiving in her ear. Then we gather the last of our things.
Bella, exhausted, bursts into tears when she sees Sophia in Grandma’s arms. Afraid we are leaving her sister or her sister is leaving her? Something isn’t right. An overtired girl, she should be in bed. I gather Sophia. One last round of diaper changes. A last few goodbyes. A final genuflection to the Presence still on the altar.
Bella clutches her doll and kangaroo, Sophia chews on her giraffe. We drive off into the joyful night. Within minutes Bella is sound asleep, her head tilted back and to the side, mouth open, sun hat settling over her eyes onto the bridge of her nose. Sophia follows soon afterward. Home, beds beckon.