I have one word for my experience today: jaw-dropping.
My parish in Queens seats about a thousand people. At the 12:05 daily Mass today, we had all that and more. They were standing in the back, and some in the aisles. We went through four full ciboriums of hosts, which is almost unprecedented.
The Mass itself was a little out of the ordinary: four priests (including our pastor, the bishop), one deacon, six altar servers, incense. It began with a full-throated rendition of “For All the Saints” and didn’t end ’til an hour later. And here’s the thing: nobody left early. There was no rush out the door after communion. They wanted to linger, genuflect, breathe the air of disappearing incense and melting candles. Some stayed for Adoration (which lasts until 7:30 tonight and every Thursday night). Others wanted that extra dab of holy water, one more candle to light, one more prayer to whisper before the Blessed Sacrament. People I met outside after Mass seemed grateful, and prayerful, but also worried; many made it through Sandy in one piece, but we all know others who didn’t. Everybody has a story to tell—flooded basements, washed-away cars, fallen trees that had stood in the yard for a century. Some homes of family and friends in Brooklyn and on Long Island were decimated. Everyone seemed to feel the same thing: the world has somehow shifted. It is hard to find words for what we’re experiencing (though, in my homily, I tried.)
But again: what I found most overwhelming was the sheer numbers of people who crowded into church on a day (obligation or not) when some Catholics might not have even given it a second thought.
We chatted about it in the sacristy after Mass. The consensus seemed to be that right now, prayer is all some people have. They need to be on their knees—whether in petition or in gratitude. And a lot of people know so many others who need prayers, too. There are also folks, of course, who have no where else to go. Literally. For now, the church is a warm and comforting shelter in a storm.
I’m reminded of what we went through after 9/11, when churches were suddenly packed. Eventually, like all floods, that one ebbed. I wonder if we will see the same thing after Sandy. It’s possible. But this particular event isn’t over yet, and won’t be for months. There is a lingering sense of something vaguely apocalyptic, something that will change how we live and where we live, and that will have an impact we can’t yet measure because, quite simply, we’ve never experienced something like this. We don’t have the tools to gauge what we’re going through. A fifth of the population has been impacted by something far beyond our control.
So what else is there to do, but hit your knees?
I also think this is a peculiarly Catholic impulse: when you can’t do anything else, you simply have to pray. And the Church has an arsenal at the ready for times like these: novenas, rosaries, holy hours, devotions. We are a praying people. And we are better because of it. Our conversations with the Almighty give us solace, and a sense of solidarity, too. We are in this together.
And when we rise from our knees and stretch our backs and shuffle back out, blinking, into the light of day, we feel somehow assured—and reassured— that we are not alone.
God is in this with us, too.