In early April, I was in San Francisco for the annual academic geography conference. I was also quite deep into my catechumenate; because our temple in Richmond is on the New Calendar, we had just celebrated Pascha (what the Latins call ‘Easter’).
I like to visit churches when I go for conferences, and San Francisco is an especially exciting place to do this because – for all the hype about San Francisco being a godless city needing to be evangelized – the sheer variety of churches and the even greater variety of their theological variations is mind-blowing. One of these ecclesial gems is Our Lady of Fatima Russian Byzantine Catholic Church (OLF Parish), a temple located quite close in proximity to theRussian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia’s (ROCOR) Holy Virgin Cathedral – Joy of All Who Sorrow – where the relics of St John Maximovitch the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco are kept (I’m told that the two temples are friendly to each other, and that there is also a surprisingly joyful friendship between these two temples and the Dominican Order at St Albert’s Priory in Oakland). Of course, my first exposure to OLF Parish wasn’t because I knew very much about Russian Catholicism or was very excited about Solovyov or Feodorov or Our Lady of Kazan – my astute readers know all too well by now how little I really know about anything, really – but because they, like my home temple in Richmond, have quite a presence on Facebook.
I lucked out on the week that I was visiting San Francisco because I booked my return flight home on Saturday, and it just so happens that every first Saturday of the month, they have a lecture series delivered by their pastor Fr Kevin Kennedy called ‘Looking East,’ preceded by a Divine Liturgy and light lunch. I wrote them an email, they wrote me back with directions for how to bus there, I told a few people at the geography conference over drinks that I was going to visit on Saturday, and as I arrived barely on time on Saturday morning, I found that not only I, but also two other geographers, were there.As I wrote recently on a Yelp review for OLF Parish, the Divine Liturgy at OLF is simply divine. Their klyros (the group of designated singers) has a way of pushing the liturgy forward so that you’re just propelled to sing along, so much so that the eighty-two-year-old lady next to me whispered loudly to me when the whole thing was done, Oh my goodness, are you Byzantine?! When I asked how she could tell, she said, You knew all the words from memory! True as that might have been, it’s a testament to the strength of OLF’s klyros that I could enter into that liturgical zone simply through auditory prompts.
I had only planned on staying for the lunch because they had borscht, and I love borscht. My original plan was to then drop by the ROCOR Cathedral to venerate St John the Wonderworker’s relics, and then high-tail it back to where I was staying, as my relatives were planning to drive me to the BART station, where I could transit to the airport.
But as it happens, the lady who had discovered my Byzantine affinities had me locked in conversation, which led to us staying for the lecture. As we took front row seats, I heard someone whisper to Fr Kennedy, ‘The Missionaries of Charity are supposed to be coming.’
How many? he asked. ‘About sixteen.’ I watched as a flash of panic waved across his face. Sixteen MCs would put the room at maximum capacity, there weren’t enough chairs, and the fact that they were supposed to be coming meant that they weren’t here yet and nobody knew when they would show up, which also meant that nobody really knew when to start the lecture.
It turns out that the MCs’ van driver had gotten lost, so they arrived as the lecture was starting, some from the back door, some from the front door. Some filed into the front, some filed into the back. Most were grinning sheepishly. As they sat down, each of them got out a notebook and a pen and looked up attentively at the priest.
Then one looked across the room at me and smiled. I made the mistake of not looking away. It turns out that the rumors are true. True to the charism of the founder, when the MC smiled at me, a little explosion of love went off in my heart.