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Jesus Present in Midtown Manhattan

photo by Kristin Meyer
(Kristin Meyer)

The actress Patricia Heaton often retweets good news and good deeds with the words “More of this please.” That was my reaction to a Eucharistic procession in New York City earlier this week. Tim Busch writes about it in the Wall Street Journal (the Houses of Worship column there is a long-standing treasure) today:

The Big Apple saw two parades on Columbus Day — or rather, one parade and one procession. Hours after the more famous march, up Fifth Avenue, about 100 Catholics, myself included, trooped up Sixth Avenue and skirted Times Square. We were carrying Jesus Christ through the city’s heart.

Our event was a Eucharistic procession, which traces its roots to Roman times, and even further back to Jewish traditions. Early versions featured prayer and singing as the faithful either traveled to or circled around a holy site. In the Middle Ages, processions grew to include the Eucharist, bread that Catholics believe becomes the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ, and that is normally consumed in Holy Communion. Eucharistic processions became a common means of responding to those who denied the Catholic understanding of Communion. They occur world-wide to this day.

We started at the Shrine and Parish Church of the Holy Innocents, a few blocks south of Times Square. Auxiliary Bishop Edmund Whalen of New York consecrated the host during the preceding Mass. It was then placed in a golden monstrance — a sunburst-like vessel with a transparent center — in preparation for the procession. It was a beacon of hope in a dispiriting time.

He shared some stories from along the way:

Confusion filled the faces of virtually everyone we passed. Phones came out to record us. More than one person stopped to ask questions. Thanks to a police escort, we constantly kept moving. As people saw us coming, they crowded on corners. Some stayed there after we passed, wondering what they’d just seen.

Standing out was the point. We wanted people to ask what kind of craziness compelled us, and also to see a stark contrast with their normal lives. Sure enough, we passed souvenir shops hawking profanity-laced T-shirts as well as cabdrivers yelling at each other and equally irritable street vendors. Virtually everyone we passed was in a hurry — whether traveling by foot, bicycle or car. But we walked slowly and deliberately, pursuing not a destination but a deeper devotion to the Lord in our midst.

The procession grew as we went. Toward the start, a delivery driver named Rick approached one of my colleagues and asked what we were doing. A former Anglican, he wanted to know why we believe the Catholic Church is the true Christian church. After learning about the nature of the procession, and our desire to send a message of love and mercy, he said that’s exactly what New York City needs. After five minutes of conversation, he hugged my colleague and went back to his delivery truck.

Another friend was approached by a bicyclist. A student studying for his GRE, he wanted to know more about Catholicism — specifically why we took time out of our day to do such an odd thing. He said that sometimes he goes to a Catholic church in Queens because it’s quiet and beautiful. This young man ended up walking with the procession for 10 blocks. Before leaving, he asked if he could come to Mass. My friend said anytime. The doors of every Catholic church are open.

The Feast of Corpus Christi in June is also a time for Eucharistic processions. This summer was a time of anti-police violence in Washington Square Park, but two Catholic Churches on either side of the park had Eucharistic processions that Sunday. They didn’t make headlines, but they undoubtedly brought peace to hearts that day. I experienced that day processing around St. Joseph’s Church what Busch describes from Monday: people stopping, looking, wondering. One young man thought it was a Gay Pride parade, commenting that it must be the most progressive Church. We didn’t have a police escort because of all of the funding cuts, but there was no danger because most people seemed to have no idea what we were doing. Walking around the block at St. Joseph’s means walking past the Stonewall Inn and national park — which could be considered Gay Pride central, and during Gay Pride month. And we did so in love, bringing Jesus.

Eucharistic processions are especially powerful after our recent lived experience of being locked out of churches during the pandemic shutdowns. I’m far from the only one who longed to be in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus. I’m so grateful for priests willing bring Jesus to the streets. I know priests who during the shutdowns, drove around with the Eucharistic Lord to the homes of parishioners. When New Rochelle had a first big outbreak, a priest drove through the streets with a hand of blessing. At a time of tremendous fear, these processions and actions and recourse point to what Christian hope is all about: the love of Jesus Christ and the power of the Resurrection, which is victory over death. It’s also a reminder: We Christians must live the joy of this hope in the midst of the world. It’s our duty, and why wouldn’t we share the love of Jesus?

I also loved the Eucharistic procession this week because it included Sisters of Life and Missionaries of Charity. To know them is to know the love of God better.

(For more on Catholic belief in the Real Presence, this is a resource.)

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