Jan. 4 was a hunker-down day in the Northeast. New outlets were talking about the snow in apocalyptic terms. A “bomb cyclone” — whatever that is — was heading our way. For the people gathered at St. Anthony of Padua Church in Yulan, New York, that was far from the most important thing going on that day. Family, friends and the grateful all gathered in a standing-room-only rustic Catskills-region church, overflowing into the parish hall, united in prayer with countless others — including at least one bishop and a group of Sisters of Life who got stuck on the road along the way — to commend J.J. Hanson to God.
All I know is this: Wherever people were thinking of J.J. Hanson and his family, there was grace. And the veil between heaven and earth was thinner in the blanket of snow as everyone seemed to transcend the cold and the inconvenience.
“Thank you for bringing him to Christ, today,” the principal celebrant, the Hanson family parish priest, said at one point in his homily. But the whole truth was: He and his family had brought countless to better know Jesus through the witness of their lives. As they still are.
The roots of J.J. Hanson’s faith came before he was diagnosed with cancer, as testimonies at the “celebration of life” after Mass made clear. A good friend and business partner explained how, during long drives between meetings, J.J. regularly would want to pray the Rosary in the car.
Friends of mine from California, I have to confess, are whom I have to thank for nudging me to get upstate that day. When I saw on Facebook they had somehow navigated a nation of canceled flights to get to a rental car en route to someplace previously unknown to most of us, I was at least going to make the effort. Another friend from Washington, D.C., shared her already plotted train paths. And an angel of an Uber driver named Omar, whom I knew wanted to get home safely to his Bronx apartment with his wife, who had the day off, played a crucial role along the way.
One of the first things I saw — besides the paradox of the quiet of God’s beauty in the powerful storm — was the beautiful face of J.J. and Kristen Hanson’s eldest son, a toddler, who had both radiant peace and sadness beyond his years on his face in the arms of his grandfather, and soon his mother, in the back of the church. I was far from the only one who couldn’t hide tears. Their younger son, 6 months old, wouldn’t be alive if they had given into our current medical and legal and popular culture. J.J. had been given four months to live over three years ago, diagnosed with advanced brain cancer. That jolted him into advocacy against assisted suicide, and it is the reason I even came to know the former Marine. Even as it prematurely robs a family of its son, brother, husband and father, God works his grace.
We ended the day — those friends who made the journey from across the country — with the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, up a little hill in Westchester, New York, closer to Manhattan. Sister Mary Francis, the superior there, gave us a tour and invited us in to evening prayer in the cancer center and convent where they care for poor men and women who are dying of cancer.
God provided this deeper window into his heart that day, there was no doubt. And the takeaway was this: love one another; be present to one another; pray for one another; and do more in his love. As the Hansons have done and still do. As the Dominicans sisters live. And as we all must. Why would we try anything less when there is Christ’s love?
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review, and co-author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $17.95).