As Lent comes to a close, let us look back at our own journey of conversion and repentance in these past forty days. We share this reflection of thanksgiving for the graces during the Lenten mission in the Bronx in these days of graces following closely the steps of Our Lord to the Cross and Resurrection.
Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20).
The words of Sacred Scripture resonated as we walked the busy streets of the Bronx. Recalling the inspired Word of God in the face of obstacles helps the missionary to pray everywhere (1 Tim 2:8); the Living Word continues to respond to today’s troubles. By the grace of God, St. Thomas Aquinas Parish has been serving the spiritual needs of central Bronx for more than 110 years; the IVE priests have been serving the parish for about 10 years. This nine-day Lenten Mission in the Bronx, New York, was a mission for souls: the souls of those we met on the street and in the parish and also of each missionary religious sister and brother, knowing that the fruits of our apostolate are dependent on this source of missionary zeal–prayer. Every mission is fruitful even if just one soul turns back to God.
We began the mission by praying for the souls we would encounter and also faithfully developing our spiritual life. As missionaries, we can’t give what we don’t have, and the spiritual life always calls us to grow in holiness and imitate Christ more deeply through mental prayer, spiritual direction and reading, confession, and Holy Mass.
When we were less than a week away from the start date, our accommodations fell through. We knew that if God wanted it, the mission would happen, and we would safely stay somewhere. Feeling a little like St. Joseph asking for room in the inn (except, in our case, room for 21 sisters!), we watched as God’s plan unfolded. Sure enough, two days before the mission, a Franciscan sister called to offer a retreat center only a few minutes from the parish. God wanted the mission; He would make it possible.
On February 24th, after we greeted the Bronx Franciscans who helped us with lodgings, the mission began with the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the most important moment of each day. We asked God to bring souls back to Him during this precious time of Lent. As some of the novices and postulants struggled through the Spanish mass, you could see in their eyes the thirst for the missionary adventure. At the conclusion of the mass, Fr. Javier Ibarra, IVE master of novices and chaplain of the SSVM Novitiate, blessed our crosses and gave us a special missionary mandate blessing. Here we were–30 IVE religious in the heart of the Bronx, with one objective alone: to help souls.
This was the first mission for many; they embraced the challenge of the city, the snowy days, and the language. Later we learned that about the same time that we began the mission with Mass, a few blocks away, there was a tragic incident: A young girl was assaulted in the alley outside an apartment complex that is next to our church and school, St. Thomas Aquinas, and also another public elementary school. Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. The next day, as police cars passed, as teachers discussed the incident with their classes, and as local news stations broadcasted from the street, we began the mission. God wanted the mission; He would bring fruits.
After a group meeting, the religious divided into groups, some to visit the elementary- and middle-school students each day to share in their activities, lead them in games, and provide talks on the faith, others to help in the office, and many to visit the houses within the parish boundary. We were grateful to use a large map of the neighborhood that had been made by the 1975 Evangelization Team of the parish! We started at the center, with the apartments closest, and worked our way out to invite EVERYONE to the Church, to the mission, to pray etc., and most importantly, to receive the Sacraments, which are efficacious outward signs of God’s grace. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.
One beautiful aspect of the religious life is that the habit speaks first in evangelization, saying: “I am here only for love of God.” Wherever there are souls, there is mission, and each soul is precious. The reactions varied: Overall, the community graciously welcomed us and was grateful to have this outward reminder of the faith.
As the missionaries visited the school, they also got to know the children better through the afternoon youth group, which grew to about 25, and a children’s mission oratory of about 50. Twice a day, the groups of IVE and SSVM missionaries visited many houses. As we walked back to the parish, we realized that every day we usually had about 10 people who wanted to return to the Sacraments, due to a desire to seek an increase in grace in their lives.
An example of this willingness to return to the faith was a fallen-away Catholic young woman. As we passed her in the hallway of her apartment complex, we asked if she had a moment to hear about the mission, and the genuineness of her reply–“Of course!”–was striking. Within an hour, she had visited the parish office and begun paperwork for her children to be baptized. At the closing mass of the mission, her four children were baptized and the family had made steps in living a life of grace in the Church.
Certainly, not all those souls walked into the church that week, but, by God’s grace, many did, and the parish office was crowded each day with families bringing in their paperwork and receiving catechesis. All the missionaries, youth, children, and parishioners gathered each afternoon for a rosary procession (outside when the weather permitted), talks on the Ten Commandments, Holy Mass with a formation talk, and finally, everyone gathered in the parish hall for songs and skits, concluding with a hymn to honor our Blessed Mother. While these were tougher neighborhoods, the parents’ genuine concern for their children’s souls led them to realize that they needed to return to the Church.
Behind each door were souls in need. Many were too busy to talk to us, but some entered into the time of grace and received sacraments. There were four Catholic marriages, 48 baptisms, and nearly ten first communions. During the final days of the mission, these sacraments were received along with confessions. After the mass, the missionaries and parishioners threw a celebration with everything from songs to a wedding cake and decorations.
In a dialogue with Br. Leo, Saint Francis of Assisi said:
“Holiness is not self-fulfillment, nor is it some sort of fullness which is given to a person. Rather, holiness is first a void that is discovered and accepted, and which God comes to fill in the measure that one opens himself to His fullness. See, Br. Leo, our nothingness, if it is accepted, gives free space in which God can still create. God lets no one take away His glory. He is the Lord, the Only One, the Holy One. However, He takes the poor by the hand, lifts him from the dust, and makes him sit over the princes of his people in order that they might see God’s glory.”
This is what God does on mission, as the missionaries encounter this longing for God, which is written in every creature’s heart, and is fulfilled only in the Creator. In this time of grace, souls see that the only One who can fill that void is God alone. We aren’t there to sell anything; rather, we recognize our Christian dignity and find fulfillment in our Loving Father. Mission reminds us of what is most basic and most essential: the salvation of our soul, prayer, and the conformity of our will to God’s alone.
We thank all who helped with the mission, especially the parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish for their support, especially Fr. Librado Godinez for the invitation, and Maria Cosme, the parish secretary, for her care and kindness. Finally, we thank God in his mercy for the fruits (seen and unseen) of this popular mission, and we entrust the continued fruits to Our Blessed Mother, Queen of Missions.
Mother M. Aeiparthenos, SSVM
along with the novices and postulants of the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Novitiate