This article originally appeared in the National Catholic Register on April 30, 2016.
In 1980, when I was ten, Mother Teresa gave the commencement address at my parents’ (and grandparents’ and aunts’ and uncles’) alma mater, the Vincentian Niagara University. Her stock had, perhaps, never been higher: she had won the Nobel Prize the preceding year and published a bestselling book.
So though my parents had no relations being graduated that year, they went to see this “Living Saint” at Niagara’s commencement—and came back home simply astounded at the sanctity the woman radiated, having met her “up close and personal” after the event. They had literally met a shoo-in for canonization.
Fast-forward five years. My Confirmation class was taken from our parish, Our Lady of Lebanon, to Niagara University’s Gallagher Center to hear Mother Angelica speak. To be frank, I did not know who Mother Angelica was and could only imagine that my Confirmation teachers had confused her with Mother Teresa. The fact that we did not have EWTN—or any cable TV—in our house added to my confusion.
The Gallagher Center—which is where the Niagara University Purple Eagles played their home basketball games—was packed to capacity and standing-room-only. And since we were just young high school kids, we were tucked up near the rafters.
I don’t remember much about her talk—given the gyms acoustics and the fact we were sitting nearly on the roof and could barely hear her—but I was amazed by one thing: when Mother Angelica was done speaking, the president of Niagara, Fr. Harrington, C.M., said, “Now for anyone who would like one, Mother Angelica will impart a blessing.”
Having been an altar boy for years, I thought this would be some variation on the optional blessing at the dismissal—that Mother Angelica would raise her hands, the huge crowd would bow its collective head and she would call down the blessing of Almighty God upon us all. And then we would all file out.
Not even close. A line formed. Make that many, many lines formed. And from my perch way up in the nosebleed seats, I saw Mother Angelica place her hands on the bowed head of a Vincentian priest, who, after a moment or so, made the sign of the cross in unison with her and moved on. Then she repeated the blessing on the next person, taking her time, not rushing at all, while the crowd stood almost silent and still. And almost no one left. All were content to wait for a personal blessing from Mother Angelica.
Almost all. One member of our Confirmation class carped to our instructors: “We’re not actually going to wait to be blessed, are we? With this crowd it will take hours before we ever get up there!” However, this was back in the days when even a Religious Education teacher could throw fear into your soul, and at this point Mrs. Rubino (one of our DRE’s) snapped: “We can and we will all wait to be blessed by Mother Angelica. No one is leaving early.”
So we stayed late. The line seemed not to move at all. For a while I counted each bleacher we stepped down and then stopped counting because it was moving so slow. Admittedly, I, too, thought we should just make a beeline for the door, but since we had all taken one church van there was no way to get home. And so we waited, and shuffled down the steps, and finally to the gym floor and, after what must have been a solid hour—and finally into The Line that lead right up to Mother Angelica.
As I said above, I had conflated Mother Teresa with Mother Angelica before this event. But having heard her speak this evening, I now knew this was an entirely different personage. So when I came face-to-face with her, it was not the wizened, tanned, almost shrunken head of the Saint of Calcutta, but the full-fleshy bespectacled face of the nun whom I could barely have heard before from my belfry seat.
It was at this point that I realized that to my right and left there were people lying supine on the floor. Suddenly there were two giant NU students (no doubt devout rugby players) behind me. I had heard in past Confirmation classes that sometimes the Holy Spirit, especially during the Anointing of the Sick, may cause someone to faint. Apparently that was what was happening here with Mother Angelica’s blessings.
I thought she’d be exhausted after blessing hundreds and hundreds of people, but no: she looked me straight in the eye and asked, “May I bless you?” I think I said, “Yes, Sister” or “Yes, Mother” but don’t recall. I do remember that she continued to look right into my eyes and prayed, not in tongues, but almost under her breath. And that when she was done, she opened her eyes and smiled and said, “Amen”—an “Amen” I repeated.
Eighteen years later I was flat on my back in a hospital bed. I’d been diagnosed with cancer the previous morning and the doctors were pumping me with all kinds of medication. I turned on the television and there was Mother Angelica’s face. I’d probably not seen it since I was fifteen, that night she blessed me at Niagara University.
I remember what she said from that cathode-ray set: “Don’t try to make bargains with God for things you should already be doing: ‘God, if you will only take this pain away from me I promise I will say the Rosary every day!’” She paused: “You are supposed to say the Rosary every day!” she said with a chortle. And she was, of course, right. Who are we to go around trying to cut deals with God for things we should be doing without question?
But seeing Mother Angelica, and hearing her voice again that night in the hospital room, took me back nearly two decades to the night she laid her hands on my head. It was as if she was blessing me again—this time not because I was a fifteen year-old preparing for Confirmation, but because I was a newly-married man who was in, literally, for the fight of (and for) his life. I like to think Mother Angelica’s benediction helped see me through that time and now into her online publication.