MENLO PARK, Calif. — One night, as Linda Potter kept vigil before the Blessed Sacrament at the Church of the Nativity in Menlo Park, Calif., a woman came to pray for a niece who had been arrested on drug charges.
The distraught visitor shared her story, and Potter offered to join her in prayer. Over several months, the two women prayed for the niece, and Potter was overjoyed when she learned that the young woman’s life had turned around.
One of 170 volunteers in the Church of the Nativity’s perpetual-adoration ministry, Potter prays before the Blessed Sacrament five hours a week, fueled by the joy and comfort she both receives and shares with others.
“When you are in church late at night, you are close to the Lord, and you can be called to do some ministering to people who are hurt,” Potter told the Register.
On Jan. 3, Potter joined the parish congregation to mark the 20th anniversary of the adoration apostolate at a Mass celebrated by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. Established in the late 1800s in Menlo Park, in the heart of Silicon Valley and home of Facebook, Nativity draws a diverse group of parishioners, including Hispanic and Filipino immigrants, tech-based engineers and students from nearby Stanford University.
In his homily, Archbishop Cordileone linked the feast of the Epiphany, which celebrates the Magi’s homage to the newborn King, with the parish’s striking devotion to the Blessed Sacrament.
“How appropriate that we celebrate these 20 years of perpetual Eucharistic adoration here at Nativity parish on this Solemnity of the Epiphany, for the word ‘epiphany’ in the ancient world meant, as it means in sacred Scripture, the appearance or manifestation of the divine,” Archbishop Cordileone told the congregation.
“Here, we have the Son of God, the Second Person of the Most Holy Trinity, who took on a human body in his birth (his nativity) in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, always present to us in the substance of his body, the most holy Eucharist, which signifies and realizes the unity of his mystical body, the Church.”
The archbishop’s words explain why the parish first considered this ministry and then why its chief organizers, Deacon Dominick Peloso and his wife, Mary Ellen, have stayed the course for two decades, despite the scheduling challenges that come with this effort.
Back in the early 1990s, the Pelosos learned about the spiritual benefits of Eucharistic adoration and decided to bring the devotion to Nativity parish. With their pastor's support, they began with a monthly 24-hour program, but gradually ramped up to perpetual adoration by 1996.
“It was a push to get volunteers from midnight to 6am,” Mary Ellen told the Register.
“So we held a big meeting and went over everything. We showed the blank spots on the schedule and explained that Dominick and I would have to fill in if others didn’t step forward. The parish stepped up, and Nativity has not been locked for 20 years.”
Along the way, the couple has learned that Eucharistic adoration offers a deep sense of peace and clarity in moments of anxiety and crisis and that the mystery of God’s providence should not be second-guessed.
To illustrate this point, they tell the story of one adorer, who asked the Pelosos to pray for her son, who was looking for work in New York City. The women grew frustrated when her son failed in his second attempt. She wondered if her time before the Eucharist had been in vain.
“Eventually, the son did find work. A year later, he was sitting at his office on 9/11 and saw the planes hit the World Trade Center — the location of the first two jobs he failed to secure,” said Deacon Peloso.
“It turned out that God did answer her prayers, only better than she thought.”
Another memory that lingers is of a woman who drove an hour from San Francisco in the middle of the night to seek solace from the Eucharist, after learning that her husband had been unfaithful. She, too, shared her story with adorers and found strength as they joined her in prayer.
While leading the ministry, the Pelosos have also learned to adapt to the scheduling problems that arise when volunteers call in sick and a substitute can’t be found. Sometimes, one of them will take an hour, when their original plans called for an evening out — but they’ve also seen others step up.
“One night at 11pm, Mary Ellen and I were in bed, and someone called to say he couldn’t be at the midnight hour,” Dominick recalled.
“Then the phone rang again, and a gentleman called to ask if a midnight hour was available. We said, ‘Yes, this time is now available.’ From that time on, we realized that we are not in charge of adoration. God is in charge.”
Adorers begin their Holy Hour with the Rosary, usually followed by the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. A prayer card provides intentions, and people are encouraged to go beyond their personal concerns and keep in mind the hundreds of intentions written in a book provided by the parish.
But the most important part of the ministry is for adorers to approach the Blessed Sacrament with an open, joyful heart.
“If any parish wants to start adoration, they need a committee of people who, when the chips are down, will put on their clothes and go to church” in the middle of the night, said Mary Ellen. “They need to do this with a good heart that says, ‘I didn’t expect it, but God is calling me to prayer now.’”
Indeed, as the Pelosos see it, perpetual adoration has “changed all the dynamics of the parish and made everyone more prayerful.”
Msgr. Steven Otellini, the pastor of the Church of the Nativity, arrived after the devotion was established but strongly supports the ministry and fills a weekly slot.
“Three vocations — one male, two female — have come from adoration,” Msgr. Otellini told the Register, while noting additional benefits to local Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
“The Church is always open. When I do adoration at 4am, people are coming in on their way to or from work or dropping in for a visit.”
“Late at night there are sometimes a dozen people,” he added.
Early one morning, Msgr. Otellini recalled, “I heard the door open, and a person walked slowly, almost shuffling, toward the altar.”
He turned to see a man holding an ice pack to his face, and the visitor came up to the priest.
The man explained that he had just left Stanford hospital, after being treated for an accident that resulted in a potentially serious brain injury.
“I almost died, and I just wanted to say ‘thanks’ to God. This was the only church I could find open,” the man, a non-Catholic, told the priest.
Linda Potter has witnessed similar late-night encounters that make her glad she is present to offer a welcome to visitors who want to give thanks to or share their sorrows with the Lord.
Thinking back to the prayers she offered up for the woman’s niece who faced drug charges, Potter described her sense of joy when she learned the young woman had undergone a “transformation. The kids she had alienated had come back, and the whole family found comfort in the Lord.”
“The world can swallow you up,” said Potter.
“Adoration allows you to connect with Our Lord in a more intimate way. Those who do not take time to be with Jesus are missing out on the chance of having a closer relationship with him.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.