On a cold Feb. 6 in 2005 at 9:25 a.m., the servers and I assembled in the vestibule of St. Michael's in South Chicago for the first Sunday Mass. With greater seating capacity than Holy Name Cathedral downtown and boasting vaulted gothic ceilings towering more than 90 feet from the floor, St. Michael's on 83rd street is the Windy City's largest Catholic church. So on a mid-winter day, even with the boiler on full throttle, the church's interior was never more than 60 degrees. Parishioners would always dress accordingly, most leaving coats and scarves on for the duration of Mass.
Just before the procession was to get underway for the Sunday Mass, one of the ushers pulled me aside and pointed for me to look behind one of the vestibule doors. And there, just beyond the door, lying on the floor, was a blue bath towel, bundled up next to a radiator. Upon bending down to inspect the bundle one parishioner shouted at me, "Don't touch it!" But being the fool of a man that I am, I reached down and pulled back the blue towel to find a very small baby boy with his umbilical cord still attached to his belly, just about as blue as the bath towel he was wrapped up in.
Upon touching his cold shoulder, instincts took over on my part, and I snatched him up into my chasuble and ran full tilt up the main aisle of St Michael's. In my head, all I could think of was how cold this little boy was — if only I could get him to the parish house, which was attached to the Church, we could possibly save him. About halfway up the 100-foot aisle, with all eyes on me in the church, the little boy started to cry loudly, which brought tears to my eyes and gasps from most of the congregation.
What ensued following my mad dash up the main aisle was a procession like no other procession we ever had had at St. Michael's. Following me through the narrow passageway into the parish house were the servers, choir director, most of the choir, extraordinary eucharistic ministers, as well as others. In the warmth of the dining room, our gift from God was fully unwrapped and warmed by the many hands that just had to touch the small boy left behind the vestibule door.
In time, the paramedics would come to bring God's gift to the hospital to be checked over. Upon close inspection in the hospital, our own foundling proved to be a "preemie" who weighed in at just over three pounds. Notwithstanding his ordeal, he was in remarkably good health. But before the paramedics were allowed by the many congregants assembled in the parish house dining room to cart the little boy to the hospital, the choir director and most of the choir made certain that "Michael Joseph," as they named him, was baptized with the Triune formula of the Catholic Church. I had at this point returned to the church to start the much-delayed 9:30 a.m. Mass with the bulk of the congregation that had remained in the church.
That Sunday, with the Gospel of Our Lord encouraging disciples to be a "light to the world," no homily was needed. God made certain St. Michael's was a beacon to the world that morning. By the end of Mass, during the post-Communion rest, sitting in my presider's chair, I counted 14 cameras from various news outfits!
In subsequent weeks, Our Lord's admonition that His disciples ought to let their light shine would prove burdensome. News reporters stopped in repeatedly at Quigley High School Seminary, where I taught a full load of classes, to talk to me. Many of the reporters could not understand how I could not just walk away from a classroom full of students! But it all worked out. In time, little "Michael Joseph" would be adopted by a young Catholic couple who could not have kids of their own. And then, lo and behold, a year or so later, the boy's new family was gifted by God with another miracle child: The childless couple had a baby of their own!
No homily I ever gave at St. Michael's ever surpassed God's handiwork that cold February day — and no homily was ever talked about more!
Years later, as pastor of Resurrection Parish in Chicago, at a Spanish Mass one Sunday morning, the parishioners of the parish and I were reminded of the gospel phrase "suffer me the little children" (Matthew 19:14). During the singing of the Sanctus, there was a young mother named Maria in the second pew from the front with a little toddler asleep in her lap. During the singing, Maria got up to go to the back of the church and left the little one asleep on the hard bench. Not long after mom had left for the restroom in the back of the church, the little one discovered that her mom was no longer in the pew and that her soft pillow was gone. The child, much to my surprise, did not start to cry, as most two years old would do! But she quietly stole herself up the three steps into the sanctuary and laid herself down for the rest of her nap immediately in front of the altar, where I was at the very start of the Eucharistic Prayer.
All eyes in the church, during the consecration of the Sacred Species, were on Maria's little one. When Maria got back to her pew, upon her discovery that her little 2-year-old was gone, the shock on her face was apparent to all. It was only surpassed by her shock about where the toddler had gone to!
Lying before the altar, sound asleep, Maria's child was succored by the Real Presence of the Almighty. Then, mother followed daughter's lead and, just like servers do at benediction, knelt before the altar with her hand on the little one's arm. When the congregation stood for the recitation of the Our Father, Maria quietly picked up her sleeping child and walked back to her bench.
During that day's recitation of the Lord's Prayer, there was not a dry eye in the church, moved as we all were by the gentle care of a mother for her child (and by the thought that God Himself provided for His little one in the mother's absence). That day, everyone quickly forgot the homily I gave, but no one who was present would ever forget the love and respect Maria and her little one gave Our Lord.
And then there was one large Spanish wedding Mass at Resurrection wherein I never preached at all, yet not a soul in the packed church complained! The Friday evening before the wedding of an older Latino couple, the couple gathered with half a dozen children and a group of relatives and friends for confessions and the rehearsal. This older couple was finally going to get married in the Church. The couple, like so many nowadays, was civilly married but never got around to having their marriage blessed in the Church. So, due to the chiding and encouragement of the bride's mom, this pair was finally going to get married in the Church. As a pair, they were great to work with, filling out all the paperwork and complying with all the Church's myriad requirements for having their marriage blessed. As the mother of the bride, a "CCD" (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine) teacher for many years in the Church, said, her daughter was "finally going to make it right!"
The wedding was set for a Saturday afternoon on a summer's day, and all the family — even the couple's half a dozen kids — came for the wedding rehearsal the Friday night before the wedding. The rehearsal started out normal but quickly went south.
The bride had asked her mom (a catechist and a good lector) to do the readings for the wedding Mass. The bride's mom was a very small woman, one whom you could barely see beyond the ambo. She began the first reading from the Book of Tobit (Tobit and Sarah's Prayer; Tobit 8:4–8). Yet, when she got to the third strophe, "Blessed are You, O God of our fathers; praised be Your name forever and ever." She suddenly collapsed in a heap at the foot of the ambo. Tragically, she would never regain consciousness; she died there in Resurrection's sanctuary, where we laid her out in order to perform CPR. The paramedics attempted to resuscitate her with a defibrillator when they arrived, but to no avail. She died in the church, in the sanctuary, near the large family that she loved and with her pastor at her side.
Later on that evening, after the shock of all that had happened started to wear off a bit, since family and friends had traveled a great distance for the wedding the couple decided to go ahead with their original plan of exchanging vows the next day. But it would prove to be like no other wedding I have ever had! Beforehand, I met with our young music director, and hymns were selected for the wedding to remind the wedding party and parishioners of Our Lord's Resurrection from the dead, recalling the name of the parish. The opening hymn chosen was the famous Spanish Easter hymn Resucitó. Hymns of our Lady of Guadalupe were also incorporated into the Liturgy.
That Saturday afternoon, when the organist started Resucitó, the entire wedding party reverently processed into the church. All were dressed in their best black clothes, even the bride and groom. After the bride and groom reached the foot of the altar, the bride, whose mother had died the night before, walked resolutely into the sanctuary and took the wedding dress, which she carried on her arm, and laid it over the very spot where her mother died the night before (stains were still on the carpeting from the paramedics) and then knelt down beside it. The rest of us, taking her cue, also knelt for the remainder of the hymn and then some.
The remainder of the wedding Mass was a solemn and simple affair with no fanfare whatsoever — no homily and no extended nuptial blessing. But not one person voiced a complaint.
The following Monday morning, the couple and their family and friends would reconvene at Resurrection Parish for a funeral Mass for the mom of the bride. For the opening hymn, Resucitó was once again played, and for a second time, the congregation would shed tears, knowing too well the evils of a sudden death and the loss of a loved one. I preached a homily for the funeral Mass, but it was a brief affair; I spoke only about the hope Our Lord extends to us as His disciples in the general resurrection to come when there'll be no more tears, no more disease, no more death and no more sadness!
I am humbled so much now, looking back at the times when God took matters into His own hands and powerfully instructed the faithful assembled during these Masses despite what I wrote! God's homilies in each of these instances proved to be so much more moving and lifegiving than what I had planned. God be praised!