Our Eucharistic procession in the heart of Manhattan surprised many.
By Tim Busch
Oct. 14, 2021 6:28 pm ET
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.
We cut a strange sight filing out of the parish and into the street. Three priests and a deacon led, followed by 18 nuns, then the rest of the faithful. Father Michael Duffy lifted up the monstrance, while the deacon rang a bell. The rest of us sang hymns and prayed the rosary as we headed toward Broadway and turned north.
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.
Not everyone responded with questions or kindness. One passerby tried to barge her way through the middle of the procession, loudly explaining that we were on a public sidewalk. Although I didn’t see it, I heard that multiple people spat on the ground on seeing the priests. A couple yelled at us about the church’s sins and scandals. To be sure, we share their concerns and even anger. As we went, we quietly prayed that Christ purify the church of evil and protect all who need and trust in it.
We ended up walking about 45 minutes, ending at a Times Square hotel where my organization was hosting a Catholic conference. In one of the ballrooms, the priest set up the monstrance for adoration, so people could continue to pray in Christ’s presence. A couple people who joined along the way stuck around a few extra minutes. So did a handful of people from the hotel lobby, including an Emirates Airlines flight attendant.
What effect did our procession have? What difference did we make in the hearts and minds of those we passed? There’s no way we’ll ever know. But one thing’s certain: Christ shone bright on New York City’s streets. We’ll bring him back next year.
Mr. Busch is a co-founder of the Napa Institute, a Catholic lay organization.
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Applaud you and the group for being creatively beautiful in making our faith more visible