New York City’s Catholic Underground is an experience of church like no other
I gasped audibly when I walked into Our Lady of Good Counsel Church one Saturday night. Friars sang in a small band on the right of the church, which sits on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Surrounding me were so many people, predominantly 20-something women and men—at church! on a Saturday night!—but also people in their 40s and 50s and even children. The church, a late-19th-century, ornate gothic structure that could just as easily host a Latin Mass as a night of worship music, was filled to the brim by this diverse crowd. Along the sides of the church, dozens waited quietly in line for the friars who were hearing confessions. As the night went on, those lines continued to grow.
The evening began with a call for first-time attendees to raise a hand. I was one of only a few who did so. Catholic Underground, a holy hour hosted by the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, is a monthly event for most, it seems. In front of me, a woman who, like me, was in her early 20s, saw my hand raised and welcomed me. She was seated with her friends—seven or eight of them wearing casual attire (skirts or pants, but not sweatpants), clustered in the pews in front of me.
We sang “O Salutaris Hostia” to begin the Holy Hour, then moved into Evening Prayer (Vespers), which I had never prayed before, at least not in this way. The friars in the choir led us in chanting the psalm and a reading. They sang a version of “Amazing Grace,” and a friar asked us to reflect on what the sweet sound of saving grace really sounds like.
In the darkened church, most lights were dimmed, with the only bright light coming from the one shining directly on the monstrance. In this darkness, I wasn’t paying attention to anyone else in the church, how they were sitting or kneeling or praying, which usually happens when I’m at adoration with many other people. I simply focused on the one bright thing in the room. Silence hung between songs, and people seated near me got up to pray before the monstrance.
The entire experience was heartening; I was in the presence of people who also understood the Real Presence, who were going to be reverent and sing the hymns and participate in the Holy Hour. People here were welcoming without being overbearing, and I thought to myself more than once, “Why didn’t I come here before?” The holy hour felt like what we hope the church to be. With studies showing that young, urban people are leaving the Catholic Church in droves, the demographics at this event offered a hopeful counterexample.
Inspired by the teaching of Pope John Paul II, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal host Catholic Underground once a month in order to keep the Gospel “in conversation with culture,” as JPII emphasized in 2002, “crossing the cultural threshold of the communication and information revolution taking place” today.
After we sang “Tantum Ergo” at the Benediction, people slowly made their way downstairs, to a room below the church. The “underground” portion of Catholic Underground was starting.
Catholic Underground brings people with that end-of-adoration contentedness to a new space. It encourages that pursuit of beauty and truth through art.
A typical Holy Hour opens with prayer and then song and silence and closing prayer. Too often, I walk out of a church feeling like the noise of the city disrupts the peaceful silence in my heart. But Catholic Underground brings people with that end-of-adoration contentedness to a new space. It encourages that pursuit of beauty and truth through art. Each month the artist and even the medium is different. The night I attended, there was a screening of a few short films created by Catholic filmmakers and producers.
The films were varied in style. Though most were documentaries or biopics, one was a work of fiction—a story about a husband and wife and their anxiety over her pregnancy.
“Mother Clare Matthiass, C.F.R., on Prayer,” by Molly Lewis was just that—Mother Clare, the General Servant (Superior) of the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal, speaking, in a small chapel in the convent where she lives in East Harlem, about life’s meaning and prayer. The clips of her speaking are interspersed with other shots the filmmaker had taken of New York landscapes, of the sisters praying. It somehow brought the bustling scene of New York City together with the silent prayer of the sisters, which is the first step toward making God’s kingdom on earth.
“The Worker” centered on Leonard Logsdail, a tailor based in New York City, who reflects on the philosophy behind his work as a crafter of bespoke men’s suits—and whose work has clad Larry Kudlow, Leonardo di Caprio and Samuel L. Jackson, among many others. Logsdail talks about his life as the filmmakers show his hands moving so expertly over the fabric of what will soon become a suit that will fit its wearer exactly.
Erin McAtee, co-founder of Arthouse 2B, who put on the film festival, narrates her musings on the early Christian tradition in her film called “Mystagogia.” Each shot shows her at work painting spiritual images or walking around New York. The word mystagogia comes from the Greek, meaning “to lead through the mysteries” and is the name of the last period in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Christians, in which the meanings of the sacraments that the neophytes have just received at Easter are revealed by those more experienced. In the film’s case, Ms. McAtee’s artistic process parallels her investigation into the hidden mysteries of life.
By bringing the Gospel, found in the Holy Hour, in conjunction with culture, found in the showcase of Catholic artists, the Franciscans who run Catholic Underground fulfill that mission directed by John Paul and his successors.
Cory St. Ewart, a film student at Columbia, made the singular work of fiction in the lineup, “Praying and Waiting.” It opens with a man, sitting in front of a couch, with nervous breathing and shaking fingers as he prays the rosary. You hear the toilet flush. He stands, still anxious, and eventually a woman emerges from the bathroom. Without the context of what comes next, and without knowing that it is a Catholic film, the viewer is unsure whether the news that will come will be seen as good or bad by the couple.
“Fr. Declan Gibson, M.S.E., on Corpus Christi,” shot on an old camera with 35 mm film, follows Father Declan as he processes with a congregation around a town for Corpus Christi. As we watch the slightly shaky yet high quality film, Father Declan preaches about Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. The film reminded me of the mystery we all had just witnessed upstairs during adoration.
According to its website, Catholic Underground is a direct response to Pope John Paul II’s call to bring faith into conversation with culture, from his 2002 speech on social communications.
He wrote, “We must be fearless in crossing the cultural threshold of the communications and information revolution now taking place.” By bringing the Gospel, found in the Holy Hour, in conjunction with culture, found in the showcase of Catholic artists, the Franciscans who run Catholic Underground fulfill that mission directed by John Paul and his successors.
After the films were played, some of the filmmakers and directors came up to speak about their work and answer questions. Some of the films were made for class projects or were pieces of longer documentaries, while others were made specifically for this occasion.
In this space, the filmmakers were able to discuss their faith and how it directly inspired the films, something that other crowds might not understand as we did. People clapped, the filmmakers stepped down from the front of the room and mingled with the others; the social hour had commenced. Franciscans of all ages spoke with attendees of all ages. The service then ended as it had begun: with quiet prayer, this time Night Prayer (Compline) in the basement.
I walked out of the church, content and with a quieted soul. Somehow even the noise from the restaurants on Second Avenue felt like a harmonious background to the peace I felt deep within.