PLYMOUTH (Patriot Ledger) — The Rev. Anne Robertson has baptized more infants and youngsters than she can count in her past years as a United Methodist minister in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Florida.
But the Plymouth resident and Massachusetts Bible Society director never imagined that she’d get the chance to share a ritual drop of water for a baptism remembrance with a Roman Catholic cardinal.
Until Sunday, when Cardinal Sean O’Malley asked her.
“It was completely unexpected,” the Rev. Robertson said Tuesday, in her first media interview about the encounter. “I’m still blown away by it.”
“What moved me was not so much that I was anointing him,” she said. “It was him being willing to accept that from my hand – to ask me, as a woman in ministry, to do that.”
A Rhode Island native, the Rev. Robertson was the only female clergy member who assisted at a special 50th anniversary worship service at Sudbury United Methodist Church. Cardinal O’Malley delivered the homily at the ecumenical gathering, which commemorated a groundbreaking appearance by Cardinal Richard Cushing at the church in 1964.
At a time when Catholics and Protestants were still deeply wary of each other, Cardinal Cushing was the first cardinal to speak at a Protestant church.
As part of Sunday’s anniversary service, the 500 who filled Sudbury United Methodist to overflowing were invited to receive a drop of consecrated water on their forehead and be told, “Remember your baptism and be thankful.” The ritual resembles the ceremonial receiving of ashes on Ash Wednesday, but isn’t a formal United Methodist sacrament.
Cardinal O’Malley and New England United Methodist Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar led the ritual in the sanctuary. The Rev. Robertson and a Catholic priest were on their way with small bowls of water to a side room, for others watching the service on a large-screen TV.
She paused with the priest at the cardinal’s pew, so they could receive the baptism water from Cardinal O’Malley. The next moment, the cardinal quietly asked the Rev. Robertson to administer the water for him.
“My heart immediately went to my throat,” she said. “To be asked that by the man who might be pope someday – I was stunned. I was choking back tears for hours.”
After the service, she told Cardinal O’Malley how much the gesture meant to her. “He was very gracious,” she said, though she doesn’t remember exactly what he said. She was still caught up in the surprise.
She posted a blog reflection on the encounter, but two days later, she says she’s still pondering “so many little pieces” that made their shared blessing possible.
She was invited because the Sudbury church’s pastor is a longtime friend – and because the Bible Society is ecumenical. Last Sunday was the only day close to the 50th anniversary that Cardinal O’Malley could be there – and Sunday is marked as the Feast of the Baptism of Jesus by Catholics and mainline Protestants, so the Sudbury pastor included the United Methodist “reaffirmation of the baptismal covenant.”
And then there was the seating – Cardinal O’Malley and other Catholics in the pew in front of the pulpit, Protestans on the lectern side. Without that seating arrangement, the Rev. Robertson said she and the priest wouldn’t have walked past Cardinal O’Malley, “and the moment would never have happened.”