The urgency in the young man’s voice — plus the two questions he asked — immediately grabbed my attention.
At the time, I was part of a group of family and friends with Notre Dame loyalties, standing near the players’ tunnel outside Notre Dame Stadium. It was the early evening of August 30 — a short while after the Irish won their 2014 football season opener against Rice University. Involved in another conversation, I heard the young man’s voice before I saw him. In a tone that was both polite and urgent, he asked someone in our group about the location of the Grotto.
Turning toward him, I saw that he was a blond, athletic guy in a warm-up suit with a distinctive, scripted “R” — for Rice — on his jacket. But most of all, I noticed the combination of concern and desire that marked his face as he asked, “Do you think I can get there and back in 20 minutes?”— the time he said he had before the Rice team buses would be ready to leave from the stadium.
It struck me that he didn’t just want to get to the Grotto, he needed to get there. As someone who believes my life has been blessed by the intercession of Mary, I felt touched by that need. And so, in a split-second reaction that I can only credit to the Holy Spirit, I told the young man, “Let’s go. I’ll take you there.” Then we both began running. I just hoped I could keep up with him.
As we ran, he told me his name was James Hairston. When I asked him if he had played in the game that afternoon, he said he was the kicker for Rice. I mentioned that I noticed that he had made the sign of the cross every time he kicked during the game. He said he’s “a devout Catholic,” and had graduated from a Catholic high school in Dallas. Then he shared the two reasons he desperately wanted to visit the Grotto — reasons that nearly stopped me in my tracks.
“I have a special devotion to the Blessed Mother,” he said. As we kept stride, he shared with me that his mother had died of skin cancer when he was 13, and how her death had devastated him. James also said that shortly after his mother’s death, the Blessed Mother appeared to him in a vision and told him that she would be his mother from that moment.
He then talked about how much it would mean to him to light a candle at the Grotto for his mother and the Blessed Mother.
As we continued running, he noticed a side view of the Blessed Mother atop Notre Dame’s Golden Dome and exclaimed, “That’s so beautiful!” He asked if I had graduated from Notre Dame. I told him long ago, and that one of our sons was a graduate, too, and our daughter was a senior there this year.
“I would have loved to come here,” James said.
Soon, we were at the side steps leading down to the Grotto, a setting that has long been a touchstone in my life. And when we stood in front of the shrine, James’ face lit up.
Before going inside the railing to light a candle, James handed me his smart phone and asked me to take some pictures to preserve this moment. Knowing my inexperience with camera phones, I approached someone younger standing nearby.
As James lit a candle for his mother and the Blessed Mother, he was so focused on what he was doing that he never looked in the direction of the camera. He moved to the prayer railing in front of the shrine, pulled a small statue of the Blessed Mother from his backpack, placed it on the railing, and began to pray. Every move he made was touched with an earnest love and reverence.
When James finished his prayers and rose from the kneeling pad, his face beamed with peace and joy. Before we left the Grotto, James looked around one more time. It was clear the difference a few minutes there had made.
During our return to the stadium, he talked about how life is sometimes a struggle. He mentioned helping to lead a teammate to God. James shared a recent conversation he had with a priest from his high school days who has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. He revealed how the priest told him how grateful to God he is for all the joy he has been given in life. James also noted that he wears a brown scapular the priest gave him.
Sharing one more story, James described the horrible car accident that his younger brother was in earlier this year — and how his brother came out of the wreck without a cut or injury.
“I think your mother and the Blessed Mother took care of him,” I said. James agreed.
As we neared the stadium, James stopped to give me his e-mail address and to type mine into his phone so we could keep in touch. Moments later, we were back near the players’ tunnel. I prepared to give James a quick goodbye, knowing he needed to rejoin his teammates and coaches. Instead, he asked, “Do you have time to pray?” I said, “Sure.” As he began a Hail Mary, our voices soon blended. When we finished the prayer, James continued, thanking God and the Blessed Mother for the time we shared, for the blessings of life.
Standing there together, I thought about how just 20 minutes earlier James and I were strangers. Now, we were connected forever by the grace of Mary. When it came time to say goodbye, we hugged.
As I headed to meet with family and friends, I kept thinking of James, his mother and the Blessed Mother. I kept thinking of how his two mothers must be filled with joy, pride and love for their son.
Less than an hour later, James sent me an e-mail. It read, “I will never forget that moment.”
Neither will I.
John Shaughnessy is a Notre Dame graduate and the author of When God Cheers, The Irish Way of Life and One More Gift to Give. He’s also the assistant editor of The Criterion, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.