Category Archives: Providential Encounters

“Angel on Ice”: The Amazing Testimony of a Figure-Skating Mom

In this post, I continue my series of “God-Encounters” – providential meetings with amazing people. This encounter happened two years ago and left a deep impression on me.

Tours of the Vatican

St Peter's at nightOne of my favorite activities here in Rome is giving tours in the Vatican. For me, it is more than a side-job – it’s a rewarding ministry: there is nothing like accompanying pilgrims as they encounter the rich artistic heritage with which the Eternal City abounds. There is something very special about watching someone walk into the Sistine Chapel for the first time and marvel at Michelangelo’s frescoes. I have found that in those moments of wonder, people are made vulnerable by beauty and become more sensitive to spiritual truths: it is a privileged moment to communicate the Gospel.

However, I have also found also that I am not always the one doing the preaching. On some occasions, the people on my tours teach me lessons more profound than anything I could ever offer. This is was the case when I met Mike and Kiara McCoy.

A Green Bay Packer and His Wife

Mike McCoy at Notre Dame Stadium [Photo: US Presswire, via Spokeo]

Mike McCoy was a star defensive tackle for the Green Bay Packers. In 1970, he was drafted out of Notre Dame University, the second pick of the first round. He went on to have a successful career with the Packers, as well as with the Oakland Raiders and New York Giants, before retiring in 1980. At 6-foot-5, he still has the commanding presence that accompanied him on the field, so it was not hard to find him in St. Peter’s Square where I met him with his wife Kiara (who went by “Kia”), his son Caleb, and his two granddaughters. Caleb was pushing his mother in a wheelchair since she was suffering from cancer.

After our tour of St. Peter’s Basilica, I accepted their kind invitation to join them for lunch. As I accompanied Kia to the taxi stand, I found out that she was suffering from the same rare form of cancer from which my mother was suffering: leiomyosarcoma. Kia’s had progressed so much what it was necessary to amputate part of her leg, thus confining her to a wheelchair. She knew that her time was probably limited, but she was not letting that stop her from joining her family for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe.

Amazing Faith

Kiara McCoy [Photo:]
Kiara McCoy [Photo:]

Over lunch, I had a conversation with Kia that left me inspired. When she met her husband, she was a gifted figure skater, but after their marriage she decided to hang up her skates in order to dedicate herself entirely to her children. Years later, with her children grown and out of the house, she decided to take to the rink again. She trained and trained for months, eventually going to compete in the 2012 International Adult Figure Skating Championships where she won first place in her division skating to the music of Amazing Grace.

However, not long after this amazing accomplishment she noticed an unusual lump on her leg. She went to the doctors and discovered that it was cancerous tumor.

As she shared with me the spiritual journey that began with the discovery of cancer, my admiration for her increased all more – I realized that I was not only speaking to a woman of great will power and athletic talent, but to a woman of tremendous faith.

She told me that from the very beginning of her battle with cancer she told the Lord, “Do not let me miss any blessing that can come from this illness.” She determined that she would not spend her last days wallowing in self-pity, but would actively strive to live her life to the full, loving others day-in and day-out with all of her heart. She told me that she wanted to be like Jesus at the Last Supper: even though he was approaching his death, and even though he was fully aware of that fact, he went out of his way to lovingly serve his apostles, humbling himself to the point of washing their feet.

Jesus loved his own to the end, and she wanted to do no less.

Learning from Kia

The McCoy Family
The McCoy Family

In many ways, Kia reminded me of my own mother, another woman of great faith who was courageously battling sarcoma cancer. Like my own mother, Kia exuded maternal loved and concern with everyone she met, so, even though I only spent the better part of one day with her, I felt like I had known her for much longer.

This encounter with  Kia McCoy took place at the beginning of March 2013. After exchanging contact information, we went our different ways, promising to pray for each other.

Several weeks later, on Holy Thursday, March 28, 2013, I received word that Kia had passed away that very day.

I went to the chapel to pray for the repose of her soul and was there struck my an amazing coincidence: in our conversation, Kia had told me that she wanted to live her final days the way Christ had lived his final day, and Christ had acknowledged her desire by calling her home on Holy Thursday, the memorial of the last full day before his death!

Christ Washing Peter's Feet, Ford Madox BrownThis coincidence touched me deeply, as did Kia’s amazing faith. Her example helped me prepare for a personal trial that would come a year later as I watched my own mother die from the same cancer. In her final weeks, I gained strength not only from my mother’s amazing faith but also from the lesson that I had learned from Kia.

I have no doubt that my mom and Kia have already connected in Heaven. I also have no doubt that both of them continue to help and guide their respective families with the maternal love and care that characterized their lives on earth.

To learn more about Kia and her inspiring life, check out the book written by her son Caleb McCoy: Angel on Ice


God-Encounter 2: The Drug Dealer

85On Ash Wednesday in downtown New York City, everyone who is even remotely Catholic turns up to get his ashes.

For a time, I lived and helped out at a church near Times Square. The pastor was an enterprising little Asian priest who knew how to get things done, especially on Ash Wednesday. With his army of volunteers, he transformed the church basement into a prime location for getting ashes New York-style: in-and-out in five minutes. With equally New York-like mercantile savvy, he provided ash-getters plenty of opportunities to spend their money for a good cause by setting up an easily accessible religious book shop.

Our pastor’s keen business sense was complimented by an even keener awareness of the opportunity that Ash Wednesday provided for conversion and repentance. He had a special area set up for prayer in front of the Eucharist and he strategically placed priests in locations where they could be easily approached for advice or for confession.

Not being a priest, I was assigned ash duty with a confrere. I stationed myself with ashes, ready for a long day of reminding the People of God that “from dust they came and to dust they shall return.”

A Reluctant Ash-Getter

About midway through the morning, as my ash-covered thumb was635598855312440450-161626591 just beginning to ache, two guys got into line; the older of the two was probably in his late 40’s or early 50’s with a frank look and callous-covered hands, the type of burly New Yorker that you would find working hard at a construction site. Following behind him was a bling-adorned, younger man in his twenties who was making it loud and clear that he did not want to be in church. The older guy told him to shut-up and get his ashes.

I gave both of them ashes, giving the younger a smile and pat on the shoulder.

As the older guy went to buy a raffle ticket at the book shop, I noticed the younger one hanging close by me. Thinking that he may want to talk, I left my confrere to handle the line (which, thankfully, had died down) and went to chat.

An Unbelievable Story

Just a quick glance was enough to know that this was a street-hardened kid: his young face was worn with premature suffering, and deep black bags flanked his crooked nose. A diamond-studded cross hung on a gold chain against the background of an obscenely designed t-shirt, while an expensive leather jacket and sagging baggy pants convincingly completed his gangster-look. His eyes constantly wandered, shooting from place to another with suspicious unease.

I broke the ice with a light comment, and asked him where he was from. He responded that he was from Queens and told me that the only reason he was in church was because his friend forced him. Despite his tough-guy aura, I could tell that he wanted to talk, so I asked him more about himself. He slowly opened up and began to tell me his life story. What he had to say astonished me.

“My mom and dad were the streets,” was one of the first things he said about himself. His real father was doing life at Attica and his real mother was hopelessly addicted to crack.

He grew up in the projects, and, as a young boy, saw things no kid should ever have to see, the worst of which was the violent death of his brother whom he saw be executed by a rival gang. I will not go into the details that he shared with me, but you can only imagine the horror of such a traumatic event.

Deprived of his only real guardian and guide, he eventually joined a gang himself and started dealing drugs.

“I did what I had to do.  I needed the money.”

Attica State Prison

The police caught him, and he went to prison for five years. During this time, his only consolation was his wife who remained amazingly faithful to him, despite the fact that he had had a kid with another woman. Every month of his incarceration, she traveled a total of 12 hours on bus to visit him for one.

She waited five long years for him. When he finally got out, they had only a few weeks together before she was tragically killed by a drunk driver shortly before Christmas. She had just given her husband a present. He finally brought himself to open it three weeks later – it was a diamond-studded cross.

“What does it mean when the bullet jams?”

He looked at me with tears welling in his eyes and told me that he had been so devastated by his wife’s death that he tried to kill himself.

“What does it mean when you shoot yourself and the bullet jams?” he asked.

The response came automatically: “It means God didn’t want it to happen!”

As he shared with me his life of suffering, his distress became intense. I invited him to come with me upstairs to pray in the church. He accepted, and as we went up the stairs, he told me something that I had already noticed, “I can’t look people in the eyes.”

“You can look Christ in the eyes,” I responded, “He loves you more than you can imagine.”

For the first time in the entire conversation, our eyes met.

We ended up talking for well over an hour, and I could sense that thehugging-jesus Holy Spirit was at work. The young man began to settle down, his eyes averted mine less and less, and his expression became calmer. I encouraged him to keep coming back to church, to allow Christ to be a part of his life. He told me that he would.

The time came to say good-bye, and he said something that said a lot about how he had entered the church that morning and how he was leaving, “You might have just saved my life.”

Again, the reply came automatically, “I didn’t! God did.”

We live in a hurting world, so it is likely that we will have encounters like this with broken and suffering people. We must look at those people with the eyes of Christ and strive to allow Our Lord to work through us. Sometimes, all it takes is a smile or a pat to initiate a conversation that could change a life forever.

God-Encounter 1: “The Widow of Mt. Kisco”

2d8024dOne reason that I love traveling so much is that the Holy Spirit always has interesting people for me to meet. Since I have begun my journey toward the priesthood, I have had the opportunity to encounter hundreds of wonderful people with whom I have been blessed to share the Good News. The types of people whom I have met are diverse: I have had profound conversations with everyone from drug dealers to Wiccans to high-profile atheist professors! In this post and in those that follow, I would like to share some of these experiences.

Since we Christians are members of the Body of Christ and participate in the mission of our Head, we should not be surprised when He chooses to make His presence felt through us. The following story is about a time when this happened to me.

Following my first year of studies in Rome, I found myself back in the US carrying out a summer assignment. My travels brought me for a few weeks to my old stomping grounds in Thornwood, just north of New York City.

One beautiful, late-summer morning, I drove up the Saw Mill River5407523296_bee9bd6ddd_z Parkway to Mt. Kisco for a dentist appointment, after which I decided to pop into a small family-run pharmacy to look for some things that I needed. I was wearing my clerical collar as I usually do when I am out and about.

An elderly woman with an Italian accent approached me and asked if I needed help finding anything. I told her what I was looking for and she helped me locate the items right away. Before I headed towards the cash register to pay for my things, she asked me if I could give her my blessing, assuming that I was a priest. I told her that unfortunately I could not give her a priestly blessing, but I offered to pray for her by name. She accepted, telling me that her name was Josephine.

I sensed that this woman was suffering deeply and that she needed a sign of God’s closeness and love, so I placed my hands on her head and I prayed with all of my heart, asking that God would touch her and grant her His peace.

Consoling the Sorrowful 

After my prayer, I spoke to her in Italian, asking her where in Italy she was from. When she heard me speaking her language, something broke down within her and she began to cry. A little taken aback, I tried to comfort her and asked if everything was okay. She said yes, but then continued to cry. When she had finally recovered herself enough, she explained to me that she desperately needed prayers because she was suffering terribly: her 32-year old daughter had been killed in a bicycle accident eight years previously and the sorrow was still more than she could bear.

mourn-tearsWhen you are confronted with such intense human suffering, there is only so much that you can do. What can you really say to a mother who has lost her beloved child? What can you do to explain her loss or lessen her suffering?

I did the only thing I could think of doing: I comforted her and gave her a hug. I encouraged her to remember that Christ was suffering with her, and that He allowed her this cross only because He would bring about a greater good. I reminded her that her daughter was in God’s merciful hands and that it was only a matter of time before she would see her again.

Helping the Gospel Come to Life

My words of consolation were clumsy, but they were all that I could do for God at that moment. Thankfully, He made up for my shortcoming, as He always does. As I spoke with her, Josephine gradually calmed down and her look of anguish became one of acceptance. It was one of those transcendent moments in which it is clear beyond doubt that the Holy Spirit is at work: I saw the pain in her eyes dissolve as she allowed God to help her shoulder the burden of her child’s death.

When our conversation finally finished, I paid and said good-bye, promising to keep her in my prayers. Josephine was effusive in her gratitude.

As I pulled onto the parkway to return home, I was struck by anP1080590_2 interesting coincidence: the Gospel passage that I had mediated on that morning was Luke 7:11-17: Christ’s encounter with the widow of Nain.

Soon afterward he went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him.  As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.  And when the Lord saw her, he had compassion on her and said to her, “Do not weep.”  Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to you,  arise.”  And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.

I realized that there was a real connection between my encounter with Josephine and this passage from the living Word of God: in both instances Christ comforted a mourning mother. In Nain, it was Christ speaking directly; in Mt. Kisco, it was Christ speaking through a member of His Body. In both Nain and Mt. Kisco, he revived and restored peace: in the former, through literal revivification; in the latter, through revivification of hope in eternal life.

My experience that morning left me grateful but humbled: grateful that I had been able to help someone experience God’s love; humbled that our Lord was able to work through me despite my obvious shortcomings and limitations.

Disciple_Comforting_XSmallAs Christians, we should all be ready for encounters like these. If we truly love our Lord and seek to do His will, it will just be a matter of time before He chooses to touch one of His children through us