The following is an unedited version of one of the scariest yet most profound experiences of my life during World Youth Day '13
It is August 21, 2011, and I am sitting on my couch praying. I had just turned off the coverage of World Youth Day (WYD) in Madrid, where Pope Benedict XVI had announced the next WYD would be in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. As I prayed, my soul was stirred with a very strong thought that God was calling me to attend this gathering in 2013. Not one to travel, and feeling I was well beyond the age of participating in WYD, I flippantly asked God for a sign that it was Him putting this desire on my heart. Next to me on the couch was a book I had just received that week from my confessor, Richard Gribble, CSC. It was the biography of Father Patrick Peyton, which he had written, and had given it as a gift to me after I had shared that I had begun a ritual of visiting Fr. Peyton’s grave after our confessions, which occurred almost weekly.
I looked at the front of the book, knowing absolutely nothing aboutFr. Peyton’s life, other that he was Irish, nearly died from Tuberculosis but had received a miracle from the Blessed Mother, he was referred to as the rosary priest, founded Holy Cross Family Ministries and coined the phrase, “The Family that Prays Together, Stays Together.” I reached for the book figuring I’d use it for requesting the sign, and once I was able to see I was being silly, I would go back and finish with my prayers. I closed my eyes, prayed for the Holy Spirit to fill my heart and speak truth to my heart – I then opened the book to a random page, opened my eyes and as they focused I realized I was looking at the words, “Rio de Janeiro.”
I stored this moment in my memory, astounded by these events, and even a little apprehensive – as a rule I try not to disregard God’s clear call to action in my life. A few months later, that same feeling crept into my thoughts as I was praying – that I was being called to WYD in Rio. This time, I didn’t doubt God was asking, I just needed clarification – who would I travel with, how would I pay for it, and why was I going? I can’t recall exactly how I thought of it, but within days I remembered that the Boston Deaf Apostolate had traveled to Madrid in 2011, and perhaps they could use an adult leader. Traveling with this group made sense, as my adoptive daughter, Faith is deaf, and I’m always looking for ways to improve my ASL and learn more about Deaf culture. I sent a quick email to Fr. Shawn Carey, head of the Deaf Apostolate, and within minutes received his reply: “We would love to have you join us. We have just begun our fundraising drive, please come to our first planning meeting.” There I had my answers – the who, the how and the why.
A year and half later, we were preparing for the trip – fundraising, packing, and attending planning meetings. I was anxious but excited. During this time, I was reading St. Therese’s, “Story of a Soul”, the story of her Pilgrimage to Rome, especially how she snuck into the floor of the Coliseum, where she kissed the ground and gathered some stones to take with her. During my weekly, what I now referred to as a pilgrimage, to Fr. Peyton’s grave, I recalled this story when my eye noticed for the first time that his gravestone is surrounded by small pea-stones. Wanting to bring him along to Rio with me, not just in my heart but also in this tangible, solid rock, I chose as pure a white one that I could find, and put it in my pocket. It was the first thing I packed along with my rosary.
When I traveled to China in 2009 to bring my daughter home, I had discovered a 5-day novena to St. Therese – it turned out to be a powerful intercession protecting us from traveling during the dangerous swine-flu epidemic, and giving us comfort when we were finally able to travel. Leading up to the WYD Pilgrimage, I once again pulled out the small prayer card – and made my novena. It is curious in hindsight how things can connect for us – how we can see God’s hands at work, long before we ever realize it. In this case, my offering a novena for safety and health to St. Therese, the very person who had also inspired me to take this rock along for the journey. As we are both to discover, both St. Therese and Fr Patrick Peyton would be instrumental in miraculous events and prayers being answered.
Our trip began early Saturday morning, July 20, 2013, and was very uneventful, I received my ‘rose’ signs from St. Therese before we left, felt confident and secure, up until Tuesday night, July 23rd. The twenty pilgrims in the Deaf Apostolate spent the day at Copacabana beach – at first with plenty of space around us, we drank coconut milk from a whole coconut, met people from around the world, exchanged small trinkets and took lots of pictures. The weather was awful, with rain falling most of the day and night. After hours at the beach and a beautiful Mass, it was time for us to make our way back to the hotel. The beach looked crowded but manageable, so we hooked one behind each other, and made our way for the road. Things quickly went awry; the crowds thickened and pushed in. We could barely move, and with a backpack on my back and being the perfect height for others backpacks to be on my chest and back, I felt as if all the air was being squeezed from my lungs most of the time. I fought to get sideways, pushing people away to give myself room to breathe, all while holding onto the person in front and behind me.
My anxiety caused my heart to race, my head to swoon, and thoughts to turn dark, but I refused to succumb to any of it, and began loudly praying to Our Blessed Mother for assistance. I yelled out, “Blessed Mother, come to our protection,” and when the women in front of me began to lose conscientiousness and stumbled, I was one of the two people who lifted her to her feet, holding off the pushing crowd, and then praying, “Ave Maria!” again and again. I even prayed the Memorare – which in hindsight I can laugh at it being in Fr. Peyton’s voice in my mind, as it is through listening to his rosary CD that I learned it. I asked for angels, I begged for each soul there to be spared, and lead to safety. I am sure I was not the only one Hailing Mary for help! Gratefully, after 45 minutes, we were free of the suffocating crowd.
The next day, we walked to Vivo Rio where the English Catechesis sessions were to be held. In a definite moment of God having pity on me, the day’s speaker was one of my most favorite Cardinals, Timothy Dolan from New York. As the day progressed however, the thoughts of having to return to Copacabana beach on Thursday for Pope Francis’ arrival weighed so heavy on my heart, and each time I pictured the scene from Tuesday night, my hands would tingle and my stomach would knot. I reached for Fr. Peyton’s rock, which had never left my pocket from the moment I boarded the plan, and prayed for his intercession and guidance. I did the same the next day, as decision time drew even closer – the group was split, and I was fairly sure I could not place myself (or my son) back in that dangerous situation. A few moments later, the emcee announced that the Vivo Rio would be open that evening and simulcasting the Pope’s arrival, thanks to the generosity of…Holy Cross Family Ministries!
In a million years, I could have never imagined that Fr. Peyton would respond to my prayers with his very own ministry! Our Catholic faith can be so mystical, so miraculous, so beautiful if we are only open to what God can do -- when we are willing to look past coincidence and embrace ‘Godcidence’. But this was only to be the beginning of Fr. Peyton’s intercession in Rio – each time I went to document this story in my blog, the Holy Spirit would whisper to my heart, “not yet, it’s not over yet.”
On Thursday, I would also have the pleasure of meeting Fr. Jim Phalan, Director Family Rosary International, whom I only recognized because he had been the celebrant at one of my last masses I attended at The Father Peyton center before I left. I also met Ann Marie Melanson, who works for HCFM, and had poor fortune of being the first person I saw after realizing that Fr. Peyton had interceded for me – I was so excited, I even showed her the rock. What I loved with both encounters they validated the wonder of what was happening, and shared with me the beauty of experiencing heaven touching earth. It was also in this exchange that it was suggested I needed to meet one other of the HCFM staff, but we could not find her at that time – and that was not by accident either.
On Friday, we once again made the mile plus walk from our hotel to the Vivo Rio convention site. That evening was to be the Stations of the Cross with the Pope on Copacabana, and once again we had a very difficult decision to make. All the festivities were once again being simulcast at the Vivo Rio site, and with the weather being dismal, the public transportation a disaster, and nerves still frayed, we decided once again to hang out with the other English speaking pilgrims -- enjoying convenient clean bathrooms, delicious accessible food, and a dry warm environment. The decision to remain at Vivo Rio that evening was easy but we wrestled tremendously with the how to handle the Vigil and Closing Mass – after a group meeting it was clear we were split more than ever before.
The group was given a three-hour break before the Stations of the Cross that evening, and my small, which included Fr. Shawn, choose to walk to the Cathedral – we felt a great need to bring this to the Lord in prayer. Fr. Shawn and I sat in the same row but at a distance, both went to our knees and began to dialog with God. The Cathedral was filled with so many distractions, an orchestra practices, people talking, bells chiming. At one point, I looked over at Father, with his eyes closed, his face peaceful, he looked so engaged in prayer – I truly envied his deafness. When we finally rose, we genuflected and moved to the rare of the Cathedral – and at the same time signed, “I feel so at peace.” Just before I had conversed with him, I had prayed to St. Therese for a small little sign that the message I had received in prayer was truly what God was calling us to do. We found the other 2 in our party, and headed out to find something to eat. While awaiting our food at Bob’s Burgers, of all places, I revealed what God had said to me in the Church, He had clearly stated, “This is their pilgrimage (referring to the pilgrims in our group that were Deaf or Hard of Hearing), do what they want.” Then He gave me Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you.” Lastly, I shared with my companions my request for a small sign – but that I hadn’t gotten one. The first thing I noticed was Fr. Shawn’s eyes were filled with tears, and he was signing same. I had to ask the interpreter to clarify what I thought he was telling me. Fr. Shawn had been given the EXACT SAME message I had been given, while we prayed side by side in silence. When she finished interpreting, she explained the tears that had filled her eyes – she had seen a St. Therese keychain in the Cathedral gift store and had been moved to purchase it for me but the lines had been too insane to follow through. That was more signs that I needed, or could have ever wished for.
We rushed back to share the good news with the group – whatever God had planned, we knew it was for our good, and we were ready to accept it and join in tomorrow’s pilgrimage trek to Copacabana beach. After that overwhelming spiritual experience, I happily settled into my seat to view the Stations of the Cross on the big screens at Vivo Rio. A few minutes in the woman I had been looking to meet from HCFM emerged from the stage area and out into the main lobby. As I contemplated following her, though leaning towards not going as to avoid seeming too creepy or stalker-ish, the narrator on the screen said the word, “ROCK”. Remembering my rock from Fr. Peyton’s grave nudged me out of my chair into the lobby, up the veranda and around the building -- all to no avail. She had vanished. I sort of chuckled to myself, for being a little over the top with the “sign” thing and decided to head back to my seat. I first needed to make a stop at the bathroom, still feeling that my urge to come to this floor was not unfounded. Upon exiting the ladies room, I quite literally walked into Fr. John Phalen, President of Holy Cross Family Ministries!!
Once I composed myself, I began to recall the entire story of the rock and Fr. Peyton’s string of intercessions – starting with Tuesday night, to the safe haven, to my being where I was at that very moment. Fr. Phalen then shared the history of the rosary with me, how it was began with Monks keeping track of prayers (Psalms) by counting rocks – to how they eventually strung 150 rocks together, and then over time dropped 2 strands leaving it with the 50 beads that resemble our rosaries of today. The fact I had chosen to take a rock from the Rosary Priest’s grave made perfect sense to Fr. Phalen, especially in this context. My head could barely contain the complexity and miraculous of what was happening through this simple act of faith.
After sharing the story, I asked Father if he had time for a confession. I had also been out looking for a confessor after failing to find Beth, since it was Friday and that was my day I regularly went – here too I thought it profound that the very person brought to me for confession, was the very Priest overseeing Fr. Peyton’s beloved ministry. It was if, in my heart anyway, he’d handpicked my confessor since he couldn’t be there himself. I’ve often felt it was his intercession that brought me to my regular confessor, Fr. Gribble in the first place, not only a Holy Cross Priest like himself but also his biographer. Some may cast it all off as farfetched signs and wonders, but I choose to see them as heaven and earth interacting – and the grace of God at work.
Just before we parted ways for the evening, Fr. Phalen told me about a handicap spot he’d seen at Copacabana beach. It was carpeted, close to the stage, away from the crowds – he was fairly certain our group would qualify for entering this area. It was the first time I could think of returning to Copacabana without fear and anxiety taking over my body. The next morning as we made the 5+ mile pilgrimage to the beach, I was hopeful – and prayed the rosary as much for her gift of grace for peace as for her intercession for access into this safe area. Half way through the journey we stopped for a porta-potty break, and which time Fr. Shawn met other pilgrims who were deaf, and happen to have an extra of the flags used to gain entrance into the “Pilgrims with Disabilities” section!
When we arrived at the gate, we were ushered in – putting us about a football field or so away from the main stage. Never did I dream on my couch in 2011, that I would ever be this close – or that very evening, I’d be kneeled in prayer during Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament with the Pope! While I believe Fr. Peyton had very much to do with our turn in good fortune to find this section, I would be remiss to not mention Our Lady’s hand in this turn of circumstances. On the way to the beach, I learned that Fr. Shawn’s name had been selected to attend Mass with the Pope that he celebrates for the Bishops, Priests and Seminarians. Not waiting to abandon the pilgrims of whom he was in charge, Fr. Shawn forfeited this opportunity. I believe it was that sacrifice that touched Mary’s heart so much that caused him to be able to obtain the necessary flag for entrance; we were blessed because he was selfless. In adoration that evening, I considered what made Mary care so much for Priests – what entered into my heart was their sharing in her son’s priesthood, in their sharing in her son’s ministry and work. They are, at times, personification of her son, Jesus Christ, here on earth. She loves them so much, because they are her sons in this very profound way through the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Although when we returned on Sunday morning for the closing Mass with Pope Francis we had to wait nearly 4 ½ hours for admittance into the disabilities area, and we had to endure another suffocating, crushing, anxiety producing crowd - we did make it in time for the Pope’s arrival and Mass. At about the 4 hour 15 minute mark I looked to heaven and begged Fr. Peyton open wide the gates, and moments later they literally widened the gates opening to let us through!
When all was done, the Mass was complete and people began to disband - I was finally able to sit down for a bit to eat and to give our Lord thanks and praise. I was jolted back from my prayers and ponderings by a familiar voice coming from a familiar face. Standing before me was Fr. John Phalen – in the thousands of people in that area, he had found us on his way out after the Mass. As we embraced and he kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I could not help but think of my beloved Fr. Peyton, the Servant of God, who had travelled all the way to Rio de Janeiro with me merely because I had asked him to. Who had become quite literally my rock.
All Rights Reserved - Allison Gingras, 2016
Image courtesy Pixabay, "Rio de Janeiro", Skeeze.
“Never was it known that anyone who fled to your help or sought your intercession was left unaided…” from the Memorare