The term, "religious experience" is an oft-used expression in some quarters of our society, usually reserved for some performance or event that is moving to a person or group. It might be an "experience," but the chances of it having anything to do with religion are remote. The term, however, could be aptly and justly applied to that which happened in New York City at the closing Mass of the Sacra Liturgia conference recently.
Bringing together many great speakers on the liturgy during the four-day event, the conference opened with Pontifical Vespers in the presence of Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke on Monday, and had Masses close each day, both in the Extraordinary and Ordinary Forms. All were prayerful experiences and can be categorized as triumphs, giving the Triune God the worship He deserves with the ceremonies, music and vestments that are the best the Catholic Church could offer. But these were not performances, nor events. They were the liturgical worship of the Church in the light and guidance of Tradition.
Nowhere was that more evident than Extraordinary Form Pontifical Mass for the Feast of Corpus Christi, celebrated by Chicago's Auxiliary Bishop, the Most Rev. Joseph Perry in the host church of the conference, St. Catherine of Siena. The Mass was everything one could expect from the ancient rites, but it was what followed that put this particular occasion in a very special category.
|The procession moves up 66th Street.|
Photo courtesy of St. Hugh of Cluny Society
The procession through the streets of New York from St. Catherine's to a station at St. John Nepomucene to the ultimate destination of the great Church of St. Vincent Ferrer was something few will forget.
The short walk from St. Catherine's to St. John's -- only two blocks -- set the tone for the rest of the procession. As it came up the street, accompanied by a detail of the NYPD, hardened New Yorkers seemed to be softened by what they saw. Non-Catholics questioned the line of people, and upon hearing had a respect that was palpable. Catholic bystanders, reminded of Corpus Christi, knew immediately what was happening, some remembering processions in their youth.
But it was the respect that sticks out in the minds of all who participated. Pedestrians stopped, motorists slowed. All showed deference to the procession and the expression of religious belief they saw.
Perhaps, the best description of what happened comes from the Rev. Richard Cipolla, pastor of St. Mary's Church (Norwalk, CT), and one of the organizers of the four-day event. In his sermon, given for the Sunday Feast of Corpus Christi, he related his impressions:
"There are some here at this Mass who were part of the procession: choir, altar servers, musicians, priests, members of the Knights of Malta, lay men and women. There were over 125 priests and seminarians in cassock and surplice, and at least that number of laity, and Bishop Perry from Chicago carrying Our Lord in the monstrance. Everyone who was part of this procession agrees that it is something that each of us will never forget. The New York police blocked off the streets of our route: 1st Avenue, then 2nd Avenue, then 3rd Avenue, then the long stretch of 66th Street as we made our way to St. Vincent Ferrer. The New Yorkers along the way stopped in their tracks, some took photographs, but all were respectful."
My job was to be ahead of the procession and make sure both churches were prepared for its arrival. It was waiting at St. Vincent Ferrer that things took on a different character. Fr. Cipolla further described in his sermon:
"As the procession crossed Third Avenue on 66th Street to approach St. Vincent's, the large choir in the procession began Fr. Faber's Eucharistic hymn, "Jesus My Lord, My God, My All." Everyone in the procession joined in: "Sweet Sacrament, we thee adore, O make us love thee more and more." And the sound bounced and reverberated from the stone apartment buildings flanking the street, filling the air with this soundful song of praise, as the voices of nearly 300 Catholics of faith filled the air. We processed into the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, the high altar ablaze with candles, and Bishop Perry from the magnificent altar gave Benediction to the Blessed Sacrament to the crowd assembled there."
|Bishop Perry giving Benediction|
Photo courtesy of St. Hugh of Cluny Society
Personally, it was a moment that had me awe-struck. But, I wasn't the only one. One of the New York policemen was standing next to me, reviewing the procession, the crowd, the echoing hymn and the reaction of the New Yorkers happening on the sight and was genuinely moved.
"Do you realize the peace you've brought to this area?" he asked me. He may or may not have been Catholic, but he knew something was happening, and it was good.
A friend of mine who was part of the choir had his own reaction. He is not one to suffer fools gladly, nor make overly effusive observations. This was different. Commenting on it the next day he wrote in an email: "The procession was magical. We clearly need more of these...it almost felt like this 'New Evangelization' that everyone speaks about."
Indeed, it was magical in the sense that hundreds of Catholics took part in an expression of our beliefs, and especially our belief in the Real Presence. That Presence had much to do, I think, with the reaction we saw from passers-by. It was an act of witness with no apologies to the modern world that sees these things as relics of a past it would sooner forget.
My friend was right. We need more of these. It was a "religious experience" of the first order.