Originally published in November 1997
Not even a whisper of a breeze flowed through the old Gothic church in the heart of the South Bronx. It was a Saturday afternoon in July. I had just finished my homily and was making my way back to the ornate wooden chair that awaited me behind the altar.
In the first pew on my left were six young men whom I was to ordain deacons for service in the Missionaries of Charity of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. In the first pew on my right were seven sisters of Mother Teresa's congregation and Mother Teresa herself.
As I rose to begin the Offertory of the Mass, a shriek was heard from the rear of the church. A man of perhaps thirty-five years of age, shirtless and bleeding profusely from his face and neck, charged up the aisle. In his left hand he frantically waved a torn tee shirt scarlet with his blood.
Arriving at the head of the aisle and shouting all the while, he stumbled, fell, and hit his forehead on the first marble stair leading into the sanctuary. I stood aghast. What does one do in such a situation?
Before an answer came, Mother Teresa slipped from her pew, took hold of the man's bloody hands, and cradled him in her arms. Quietly and calmly, four Missionaries of Charity joined her in the aisle and with incredible ease lifted the man and carried him into the sacristy on my right. Throughout it all I could hear him, first shouting and then sobbing, "Help me. Help me, somebody. I need help."
The sacristy door swung closed. I continued the Offertory, stretching out the prayers and the incensing as long as I could. Just before the "Holy, Holy, Holy," Mother and her sisters emerged from the sacristy and glided into their pew. The ordination ceremony continued as though nothing unusual had taken place.
After the final blessing, the clergy led me down the aisle. In the vestibule I congratulated the newly ordained, their families, and fiends and then returned to the sanctuary to collect my liturgical books and the other accouterments I had brought with me for the ceremony.
All of these I carried into the sacristy where Mother Teresa and her sisters were speaking with an agitated group of men and women from the neighborhood. I approached Mother, smiled and, not knowing what to do, bowed a kind of Indian bow in her direction. She turned toward me, but I could not be sure that she responded to my gesture. For she was so short and I so tall that I could not see her face. I bowed again rather awkwardly and moved away from the group.
The pastor of the parish, whom I had met shortly after my arrival the year before as an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, approached and drew me aside.
"The man who disturbed the ceremony is no stranger here," he reported. "He did the same thing last Sunday and the Sunday before that. We had to call the police on both occasions. No one could calm him down. He is being pursued by drug dealers. They like to keep addicts like him under control with occasional knifings."
I did not know what to respond. Hence, the pastor went on.
"You should have seen Mother Teresa with him here in the sacristy this afternoon. It was like magic. She wiped the blood off his face and neck, stroked his head over and over, folded his hands in hers; and I think she had him praying. It was like magic. Maybe I shouldn't say `magic,' but you know what I mean. A kind of wondrous, loving miracle. We didn't call the police this time. We didn't need to."
Again I was without words. Thus, gathering up my belongings, I shook the pastor's hand and began to move toward the exit leading from the sacristy to the outside of the church. As one of the altar servers opened the door, I could see the intense July heart rising in trembling waves from the gleaming white sidewalk.
"Where are you going, Bishop?" a voice behind me inquired. It belonged to a man in his twenties whom I had noticed in the sacristy when I entered.
"Over to catch the subway," I replied. "I live in Midtown Manhattan."
"I have a van parked around the corner," he announced. "Let me give you a lift home."
There was no need to press the offer. "Great!" I exclaimed. "I would welcome a ride if I am not taking you too far out of your way. This heat is tremendous."
"No problem," he declared, taking from my hands the suitcase that contained my vestments and the wooden box in which my crozier was stowed.
"This way," he added; and I followed most gratefully.
As we made our way south to the residence for retired priests in which I lived on 34th Street and First Avenue, the young man spoke almost without taking a breath. He was captivated by the ordination ceremony. He had prayed intensely for the six new deacons. And he could not stop marveling at the way Mother Teresa and her sisters had handled the drug addict.
"The priest who was speaking with you in the sacristy had it right," he repeated over and over. "There is something magical about that woman. If she hadn't been there, the police would have been called; and the man would have been back in jail probably for the umpteenth time. But she knew what to do. She gave him love. She treated him like a king. Maybe `magic' isn't the right word, but it's not far off the mark. Grace magic. Heavenly magic. Something like that."
We parked in front of my residence. He shut off the motor but kept the air-conditioner running. He needed to talk. He needed to tell someone how deeply moved he was by what he had witnessed. And I listened with pleasure, for to me his soliloquy seemed almost a prayer.
"I'm keeping you too long, Bishop," he said.
"Not at all," I answered. "If I hadn't meet you, I would still be on the subway. Thanks for everything. You have been most kind.
We shook hands. I opened the car door and stepped out into the street, never expecting to see the young man again.
Six years later I ordained him a priest for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
*Note: The Rev. Jon Bokron died in 1993.
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