Wednesday, January 11, 2006

"Come Now, You Rich...."

So, over a (self-cooked) spaghetti lunch, I pulled out today's Philadelphia Inquirer and, per custom, started going through the City section and ending up with the obits (because you just never know). I was shocked to find that Sister Beatrice Jeffries, a former vice-president of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, died last week of cancer at 59. The Inky ran a lengthy obit.

Often clad in Kente cloth scarves, and always full of the inexplicable quality we call soul (the thing St. Blogs needs most, and has least), the woman known to one and all as "Sister Bea" was a wonder -- she always had this way of exuding a remarkable level of joy, in her faith and her religious vocation, a joy with twin roots in the Catholic imagination and her African-American heritage.

And the woman had the gift of fire. Did she ever....

Sister Bea was asked to read at the Canonization Mass of her order's foundress, St. Katherine Drexel of Philadelphia, on the morning of the first day of October, 2000. Hers was the sole English text of the liturgy, as John Paul was canonizing 122 people that day (119 Chinese martyrs; a Spanish mystic; Giuseppina Bakita, the Sudanese slave who became a treasure of Milan, and Drexel) so the vernacular had to be spread evenly.

The obit talks about this moment, but I was there, in the Square and with great seats as friends of mine screamed at the Milanese who were kicking us from behind to try and get closer to the Sagrato, the Basilica steps. One of the people with me started griping -- as the Popemobile worked its way around St. Peter's Square -- that she was missing a (Catholic) Charismatic conference back home where the main attractions were Holy Screaming and a visionary who claimed to have seen Dean Martin in Purgatory.

I'm not kidding.

So Bea gets up to the Ambo, and even John Paul (who would slip into mystical experiences during his liturgical celebrations late in life) took notice as she almost broke some windows in the Apostolic Palace with her booming proclamation from the fifth chapter of the Book of James.


The nearby priests of Philadelphia -- vested, of course, in cassock and surplice -- were roused from their dozing. They had no choice, and it didn't hurt that a freak storm which rolled over the Piazza at the beginning of the Mass lingered in the distance, and rumbles of thunder could be heard coming from beyond the hills.

Pigeons were scrambling around, not knowing what was going on -- which is saying a lot, as even the Roman pigeons have seen everything. The echoes kept bouncing off Bernini's colonnade and the wide blue sky.

It was, simply put, amazing. And Bea's cadence was impeccable, which is how lectors are supposed to deliver the Word.

And now, too soon, she's gone. She'll be missed, but that moment will be forever remembered by those of us so privileged to be part of it.