Several days before my 13th birthday, in late October of 1973, I had a dream that was so vivid that when I woke up the next morning I was convinced that it was no mere dream. As I note in my 2009 memoir, Return to Rome, in the dream Jesus and I “were sitting, facing each other, with the landscape of heaven in the background. He spoke to me. Over thirty years later, I cannot honestly recall the words he uttered. But I do remember waking up the next morning with the sense that I had experienced a reality that was unlike any dream I had ever had.”
Last week, on the evening of December 26, while my wife and I were visiting family in Las Vegas for the holidays, I voiced a brief prayer under my breath while I was driving alone to my brother’s home, “Jesus, I invite you back into my dreams tonight.” We recently received news that my father has been diagnosed with cancer. Although the prognosis was far from hopeless, such news, especially during Christmas, has the power to jar one from the complacencies of ordinary life.
I began to reflect on the fragility of our mortal existence, the inevitability of death, and how ill-prepared I am for the journey that awaits each and every one of Adam’s children. So my mind harkened back to the one first-person glimpse of the supernatural that seemed the most real to me.
I awoke on the morning of the 27th with no recollection of any dream, let alone one in which I met Jesus. Because it was only 7 AM, I readied myself for 8 AM Mass at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish, about two miles from where my wife and I were staying. When I arrived at 7:45, the doors were all locked, with a few people mulling about outside wondering why the sanctuary’s entry was not accessible as it is every weekday morning at this time.
One of them, a daily communicant named Tien, told me that this was highly unusual. I told Tien that there was an 8 am Mass at St. Joseph Husband of Mary Parish, which is about five miles away, though I thought I could make it if I got on the road right away. Tien said that he wished he could go, but he had no car and relies exclusively on public transportation. So I invited him to join me.
Matthew 25:40 by Cameron John Robbins
After he sat down and before he closed the car door, he said, “I want to be honest with you. I live at a local homeless shelter.” He then pulled out of his wallet an ID-card that allows him access to the shelter. I said, “Don’t be silly. Let’s go to Mass.” On the way, he told me that he was an immigrant from the Philippines and had been living in the shelter for a while after having lost his business as a consequence of the economic downturn in Las Vegas. I told Tien about my father, and that I was going to Mass this morning to pray for him.
The Mass began, and I soon realized that it was the Feast of St. John, which was apropos, for my father had met his future wife, my mother, at St. John’s University in Brooklyn when they were students there in the late 1950s. Among their teachers was the legendary philosophy professor, Charles Bonaventure Crowley, O.P., who my father says once told his students that the greatest evils of the age were Communism and Protestantism.
While we were kneeling after Communion, Tien leaned over to me and asked, “What is your father’s name? I want to pray for him.” I said, “Harold,” and Tien then bowed his head.
After Mass, I offered to drive Tien to the shelter, but he declined. The shelter did not open until 5:30 pm. So I took him back to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Parish. When we arrived we found out, much to our surprise, that the normal 8 AM Mass had been rescheduled for 9. As he left the car, he said to me with obvious exuberance, “I can go to Mass again!” We parted ways, and I gave him all the cash I had in my wallet, which was only a few bucks.
Driving back to where my wife and I were staying, I thought about the prayer I had uttered the evening before. It had seemed, initially, to have gone unanswered. I did not wake up that morning with any recollection of having met Jesus in my dreams. As that thought entered my mind, accompanied by a tinge of disappointment, another thought soon followed, one that I had not expected: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)
My prayer was answered. I did meet Jesus after all.