MANHATTAN — As the Super Bowl XLVIII spotlight focuses on MetLife Stadium and nearby hubs of activity like Manhattan, most associated with a dazzling nightlife, an event centered on the Eucharist is making itself a part of the big weekend.
It’s called Catholic Underground, and it’s a monthly event that mixes Eucharistic adoration with dynamic performances by Catholic artists. January’s event, which drew 1,300 people, featured a talk by Cardinal Timothy Dolan and a concert by Audrey Assad.
The next event will take place Feb. 1 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan — less than 17 miles from the site of the Super Bowl and on the eve before the big game.
It wasn’t planned that way. For the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who started Catholic Underground 10 years ago, it’s praise and worship as usual.
“These guys don’t have TVs in the friary. I’m sure they didn’t know the Super Bowl was that weekend,” said Susan Johnson, 46, of Basking Ridge, N.J., who has attended Catholic Underground monthly for at least three years.
About 15-20 of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal who live at St. Leopold Friary in Yonkers, N.Y., run the event, which begins at 7:30pm at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church and follows with a 9pm concert by singer Erik Christensen.
Catholic Underground in Manhattan draws Catholics, people of other Christian denominations and others seeking a prayerful experience from throughout the New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia areas. The crowd consists of all ages, but it’s predominantly made up of young adults in their teens and 20s.
Usually in attendance are 500-700 people, making it the largest event of its kind in the country, and it seems to get bigger each month. In fact, Catholic Underground has relocated two times because it could no longer accommodate the number of attendees, and it is close to outgrowing its current location.
Quite a Contrast
That Catholic Underground takes place adjacent to the spectacle of New York City’s club scene isn’t lost on those who attend, like Hazel Aiello of Basking Ridge, N.J. In her younger years, the 49-year-old mother of two had her share of experiences in the Manhattan nightlife.
“I’m able to compare my old lifestyle being in the secular world, living the culture of death, which is not a very pure experience, going from one club to another, bar-hopping,” she said.
For Aiello, Catholic Underground provided an alternative scene that’s made a big impact on her life.
“There was something missing — a sense of emptiness,” she said. “I had the whole influence later of the friars, who I met through my brother-in-law and sister, and then everything came together.”
Now married for 19 years, Aiello said she wishes something like Catholic Underground was around when she was unwed. “It’s the best option to go out on a Saturday night for a young, single person in New York City.”
Though it may be a hotspot for New York’s unmarried Catholics, Aiello feels right at home at Catholic Underground with a wedding band on her finger. She regularly attends with her family and friends, and her favorite part is the Holy Hour that starts the evening off.
“It takes me to a different place, not of this world, and it always draws me,” she said. “It’s always an experience between me and Jesus.”
Centered on Christ
Adoration is also the highlight of the evening for Susan Johnson.
“When they turn the lights down, and there’s a spotlight on the Blessed Sacrament, and for me, particularly, when we’re praying the Liturgy of the Hours and everyone’s praying together, you know that we’re all connected. We’re singing in one voice, and we’re very focused on our source and our Creator.”
Johnson said she takes her daughters regularly and makes it a girls’ night with other friends. They arrive at Our Lady of Good Counsel for the 5:30pm Mass, eat dinner at a local restaurant and then head back to the church for Catholic Underground for the Holy Hour.
“It’s beautiful,” Johnson said. “It’s hundreds of people on a Saturday night in Manhattan. The lights are low. It’s silent and very prayerful. You can hear a pin drop.”
For Susan’s 15-year-old daughter, Mary, the musical performers are what drew her in. She said Catholic Underground regularly hosts “the most amazing Catholic artists,” including Marie Miller, Scythian and L’Angelus.
Although Mary initially came for the music, now she appreciates the prayerfulness of the event just as much.
“It’s awesome seeing all the 20-year-olds, all the college kids and kids my age having a huge amount of reverence,” she said. She also reported that after a few times at Catholic Underground, she has “really started getting into” Eucharistic adoration.
Responding to John Paul II’s Call
Catholic Underground started as a response to an invitation by Blessed Pope John Paul II to help the Gospel enter into dialogue with the culture, said Brother Dismas Kline, director of Catholic Underground in Manhattan.
“[Blessed John Paul II] said if the Gospel is not entering a dialogue with the culture, the Gospel falls silent,” Brother Dismas said. “The brothers took that as a charge to make that happen. We’re hoping to present a unique encounter between culture and the faith.”
Friars speak with young men out on the sidewalks, sometimes all night, evangelizing by their approach, simplicity and brotherhood. Catholic Underground has also developed a reputation as a starting point for vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Beyond New York, Catholic Underground events are held in 10 cities across the country. Brother Dismas said that for Catholic Underground to flourish in other places, it takes a commitment to both prayer and hosting exceptional artists.
In Manhattan, healthy contributions from those in attendance ensure that quality performers will be at each event.
“We have 1,000 people coming, so we have just enough to keep our heads above water financially to bring in a good artist every month,” said Brother Dismas.
But, he said, “If you have the Blessed Sacrament there, you have 95% of what you need.”
Brother Gabriel Joseph, music-ministry leader for the Holy Hour portion of Catholic Underground, says about one-third of the crowd at a typical event is at Catholic Underground for the first time. He expects some newcomers at Saturday’s event, including visitors who are in town for the big game.
“They’ll probably be coming to pray for their resident club,” he said.
But more important than a Super Bowl victory, Brother Gabriel hopes Catholic Underground can help bring those who encounter it closer to Christ.
“The whole thing is about trying to create a Catholic culture that goes out and transforms,” he said. “It’s another light in the city with the business of everybody coming here.”
Anna Maria Basquez writes from Denver.
What: Catholic Underground — Holy Hour and Concert
When: Feb. 1, 7:30-10:30pm, Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, 230 E. 90th St. (between 2nd and 3rd Avenues), in New York. Holy hour, 7:30; concert, 9; best accessible by early arrival (two hours early if possible) to the East Manhattan area by public transportation.
Cost: free; discounted parking at GGMC parking garage at 245 E. 90th St. directly across from the church for $10 with Catholic Underground parking validation sticker (valid 5pm-1am; additional charge for SUVs).
For more information: CatholicUnderground.net