Wanting to build upon the theme of my last post—A VISIT FROM GOD’S MESSENGERS—I thought I’d share the extraordinary circumstances of how I met Father Manuel “Manny” Dorantes.
No, I’m not going to mention angels or moral dilemmas, but I might bring up divine intervention a time or two. Divine intervention? Is there such a thing? Or is the following story merely a series of unusual happenstance? These are the questions I hope you’ll ponder as you read below.
Ok, so who’s Father Manuel “Manny” Dorantes?
Let’s start with a picture. That usually helps, right?
FATHER MANUEL "MANNY" DORANTES
Father Manny is the pastor at Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in the Brighton Park neighborhood of Chicago. He also serves as a liaison between the Spanish-speaking media and the Vatican. “In 2014, he was appointed Assistant to the Director of the press office of the Holy See, the central governing body of the Catholic Church, where he liaises with Spanish-speaking media and translates press briefings.
In 2015, he made national headlines when he accompanied Pope Francis on his first trip to the United States, providing commentary in English and Spanish to NPR, MSNBC, the Chicago Tribune, Univision, Telemundo, and other outlets.”
Needless to say, he’s an important shepherd to the people of his community and a valuable resource in getting the Catholic Church’s message out to the world.
But I met Father Manny before…well, before he was Father Manny, and before he achieved all of those impressive accomplishments listed above. I later found out that at the time, he was a deacon.
We met, yep, you guessed it, through divine intervention. But that’s getting ahead of the story.
So, let me start from the beginning.
PRESIDENT BUSH GREETS POPE BENEDICT XVI
It was early spring, and Pope Benedict XVI was coming to town. It was to be the sixth official papal visit to the United States. A six-day whirlwind tour scheduled to begin in Washington, D.C., and end in the Big Apple.
On April 15, 2008, “Shepard One”—the codename used for the Papal airplane—landed at Joint Base Andrews, located outside Washington, D.C.
Waiting to greet him on the tarmac were President Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, and their daughter Jenna. It was one of the only times a sitting president welcomed a head of state at the airport instead of at the White House (side note: President Bush isn’t a Catholic).
I wasn’t there…but here’s a picture.
POPE BENEDICT XVI ARRIVES IN THE BIG APPLE
Two days later, Shepard One touched down at JFK International Airport—New York City. And just like everywhere else he went, The Pope’s arrival set off what is called “the Freeze” —Secret Service slang used to describe the rolling bubble of protection that surrounds a protectee whenever and wherever he/she travels.
The Freeze is usually put in place ten to fifteen minutes prior to a protectee’s arrival—but the amount of time varies considerably according to the threat level.
As you can imagine, the Pope is afforded the highest level of protection (only the sitting U.S. President receives more).
A tremendous amount of manpower is used to set up and sustain the Freeze. And if done right, it provides three-hundred sixty degrees of protection, but if done wrong, could leave him/her exposed to an attack.
The Freeze extended from the Wall Street Heliport up the FDR Drive and all the way to the Headquarters of the United Nations—Pope Benedict XVI’s destination.
Nothing moved except the Secret Service and NYPD. No traffic, no pedestrians, no boats (on the East River), and nothing in the air above. Everything was shut down.
For those who have been to New York City, let me ask you: Have you ever see the FDR Drive devoid of vehicles in the middle of the day? Or the East River without any boats or barges? It’s a pretty eerie sight.
But I wasn’t at JFK, or the heliport, or in the motorcade; I was the agent responsible for helping to lock down the northernmost point of the Freeze—more specifically, the intersection of 47th Street and 1st Avenue.
Luckily, I wasn’t alone in this task and was teamed up with other Secret Service agents, two dozen uniformed NYPD officers, and several employees from the NYC Sanitation Department (we were using their massive dump trucks as blocking vehicles).
NEW YORK CITY GETS LOCKED DOWN
Up until the point of the Pope’s arrival, we had the area secure but not locked-down. Those with the appropriate credentials (law enforcement, EMS, FDNY etc) were allowed to cross the street.
Everyone else; Catholics old and young, well-wishers of various other faiths, un-credentialed members of the media, and regular every day working-folks, found themselves stuck behind the bicycle racks lining the road.
The moment the Pope’s motorcade left the Wall Street Heliport the command post issued the order to lock everything down.
And that’s when I met Father Manny.
He was dressed in priestly garb and sprinting down East 47th Street toward 1st Avenue, a look of panic and desperation etched across his face.
I watched as a pair of NYPD officer, working crowd control, stopped him. Father Manny pleaded with them to let him pass. But the officers were under strict orders; no one was allowed to cross the street.
That’s when Father Manny saw me. He pointed and yelled, “Agent…can you help me?”
I put on a stern face and slowly walked over to him, fully intending on echoing what the officers had already told him. But as I got closer something stirred inside of me. A peaceful and familiar feeling.
“What’s going on, Father?” I asked.
Father Manny grabbed the lanyard hanging around his neck and held up the attached credentials. They read: “PRESS”.
“I’m supposed to be inside the U.N.,” he said.
I examined the credentials. They were legit, but it didn’t matter; Father Manny was too late.
“I’m sorry, Father,” I said, “but the Press call was over an hour ago. And they’ve all been escorted into the U.N. There’s no way for you to get inside now.”
Father Manny cast his eyes downward and mumbled the reason for his tardiness. “I can’t believe I overslept.”
I would have laughed out loud if I honestly didn’t feel bad for him. I mean, here was this young man, on what was probably one of the most memorable days of his life, and he messed it up by oversleeping. Who hasn’t done something similar? We can all probably relate.
Although I couldn’t let Father Manny go to the U.N., I could give him front row “seats” for when the Pope’s motorcade drove past. It was a small gesture, but Father Manny thanked me profusely.
I didn’t think I would ever see Father Manny again.
But obviously, the story doesn’t end here.
The next day the Pope attended a musical festival at St Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, NY. It was promoted as “Popalpalooza,” and took a 600 person crew over a week to prep the 50-acre site behind the Seminary.
Thirty thousand people showed up to see the Pope and listen to some of the biggest Christian rocks bands of the day, including Third Day, tobyMac, Salvador, Matt Maher, and Kelly Clarkson.
The energy from the crowd was electric and amazing. And I was smack dab in the middle of it. Well, not actually in the middle, more toward the rear. But still, it was pretty awesome.
As the Pope’s motorcade got closer, the Command Post ordered everything locked down. With the Freeze in place—the magnetometers closed, the crowd contained, the musical acts kept backstage—we waited.
And then, to my surprise, I saw a fellow agent escorting someone from the Seminary down toward my post.
Who was the agent escorting? Come on, do you even have to ask?
“Father Manny?” I said as they got closer.
“You know him, Chris?” Asked the agent.
I nodded, slightly dumbfounded.
Here we were in the middle of the Freeze, and I was once again face-to-face with Father Manny.
“Good, he’s all yours,” said the agent as he turned and walked away.
Father Manny looked at me and smiled. “What are the odds?”
I shook my head and grinned. “Slim to none.” I then looked down at his ticket. It was for a section nowhere near the stage. “Follow me,” I said, “Let’s see if I can get you closer.”
Now, the Secret Service badge comes with some privileges and I escorted Father Manny to one of the best spots in the crowd, near the front of the stage.
I left Father Manny with a smile and handshake, and I wished him the best, amazed we stumbled into each other once more, but confident I would never see him again.
MASS AT YANKEE STADIUM
The next day the Pope was scheduled to say mass at Yankee Stadium. So, at zero-dark-thirty, dozens of agents and NYPD officers descended upon the historic stadium.
Tired, sore, and lacking sleep, I took my post—in front of the 3rd base dugout, near the left corner of the altar.
Thankfully, it was a bright, sunny day with the temperature in the 60s, and as I stood near the baseline, I spoke with a group of nuns seated in the first row. And then I heard my name.
“Agent Albanese! Agent Albanese!”
I scanned the crowd.
“Agent Albanese! Up here!”
Several rows up, I saw a familiar face—Father Manuel “Manny” Dorantes.
What are the chances that in a crowd of 50,000 people, Father Manny had a seat several feet away from my post (one of the dozens of security posts established in and around the stadium)?
Father Manny ran down to the railing.
I shook my head dumbfounded once again. It almost seemed unreal. I briefly thought It was all part of a foreign intelligence agency scheme (I eventually did conduct a background search of Father Manny and concluded he was “clean.”)
Father and Manny and I talked, both of us amazed how many times our paths had crossed.
ONE LAST ENCOUNTER
By the time the mass ended, and the Pope left, I was thoroughly exhausted. Most of the agents piled into a pair of buses that were going to transport us back to the Field Office.
I took a seat in the rear of one of them. I leaned back a let out a sigh, thankful my “Pope assignments” were finally over.
I stared out the window and watched the traffic drive past.
As we waited, another bus, with its interior completely lit-up, pulled up alongside. And guess who was seated in the window directly across from me?
Yep, it was Father Manny.
He jumped up and waved.
I laughed out loud.
What were the odds?
Father Manny and I eventually became friends (I got his information and emailed him) and we are both convinced we were brought together through divine intervention. Why? We aren’t sure. But maybe one day we will be given an answer. Until then, I will always consider Father Manny my friend.
If you want to know more about Father Manny you can follow him on twitter @tweetingpriest.
Or you can read this article to gain more insight about Father Manny: https://www.northwestern.edu/magazine/spring2015/feature/holy-cow-father-manny-dorantes.html