CHICAGO — Most people don’t plan to spend part of their Saturday night in church. But a group of Chicago Catholics hopes to change that, one candle at a time.
Jordan Grzybowski, a 22-year-old aspiring musical theatre actor, was on his way home from work on a recent Saturday night when someone stopped him about a block from Holy Name Cathedral.
“People were like, ‘Hey, want a candle? We’re praying for peace,’ ” he said. “I’ve never been to this church before and it’s gorgeous. I was like, you know what, yeah, we could all use some peace, and I could get some other things off my chest.”
So Grzybowski, a Lutheran, and a coworker stepped inside the softly illuminated cathedral with the tea-lights they were handed outside. They walked up the long center aisle, lit their candles, and set them down on the steps leading up to the altar. A consecrated host was placed atop the altar, and a praise and worship group played off to the side.
This is the Chicago iteration of Nightfever, an evangelization program launched in Bonn, Germany, following the 2005 World Youth Day in Cologne. It has spread to other European countries, Australia, and Canada; in the United States, Nightfever events have been held in Sacramento, New York, and here in Chicago.
“It’s a very simple concept, it doesn’t take a lot,” said Tobias Pechmann, who started Nightfever in London in 2011. He now coordinates the “street teams” in Cologne.
“You just need a priest, you need music, and 2 or 3 people on the street. That’s it,” he said.
Nightfever isn’t the only creative way that Catholic churches are luring people inside; “Mass Mobs” honor the architecture and beauty of historic churches by holding special Masses and inviting people to attend in a play on “flash mobs.” Originating in Buffalo, this phenomenon has spread to Cleveland, Detroit, and Philadelphia.
Nightfever takes a subtler approach. In Chicago, as people pass by, on their way to nearby bars or theaters or parties, volunteers, most in their 20s and 30s, ask if they’d like to light a candle and pray for peace in a city that reels from gun violence. If they say yes, a volunteer walks them to the cathedral doors.
“We’re not out there saying, ‘Repent! Repent! Repent!’ We’re extending an open hand, inviting people into an encounter,” Megan Miller, Chicago’s Nightfever co-coordinator said.
The cathedral doors opened at 9 p.m., and a steady steam of people trickled in. Priests were available for confession or conversation, seated in the side pews. By 10:30, the crowd inside was noticeably thinner, but the event continued on until midnight. Organizers said that about 500 people participated.
The central location of the cathedral is key to the program’s success, Deacon Adam Droll, 25, said.
“You’ve got this beautiful cathedral in the middle of downtown Chicago, and people are constantly walking by for whatever reason, to go wherever. You might as well take a night and just open the doors, and say, ‘Hey you want to come in, check it out, pray, pray for our city?’ It’s a genius idea,” he said.
The Rev. Bradley Zamora, a Nightfever coordinator, said the group’s tactics are in line with Pope Francis’s vision for the Church.
“It’s exactly what Pope Francis wants for the Church now, a Church not with doors closed, not cliquish,” he said. “We’re going out on the streets and inviting anyone who walks by to come in and experience what the Catholic Church is all about in a real down-to-earth type way, and it works.”
Courtney Bonty, 23, travels into the city from the suburbs to volunteer for Nightfever, which debuted here last year. She said the biggest hurdle is getting people to add some spontaneity to their evenings.
“They already have their agendas, they have everything planned out. The hecticness of everyone’s schedule is very apparent,” she said.
Of course, there are other challenges facing street evangelizers on a Saturday night.
When a volunteer approached one group of passersby, a young man responded, “I’m drunk, you [expletives].”
Pechmann said the first Nightfever event he managed was in London’s SoHo district, filled with clubs and many drunk revelers. He said volunteers offered to hold drinks and watch dogs while some of the people prayed inside.
“Some Catholics would say you can’t have these people in the church, but they don’t know any better,” he said. “We want them to experience a moment of grace, beauty, maybe encounter Jesus. Our hope is that they encounter God. But even if they go home with just a nice thought of friendly people — we become friendly faces of the Church. Even that has an impact.”
Another volunteer in Chicago, Jon Kearney, 28, said that praying for an end to violence has wide appeal.
“I think the universal call to pray to end violence in the streets is something that people respond positively to, even atheists, who say, we’ll be a part of this because everyone wants to end violence in the streets of Chicago, so you get them in that way. It’s a very universal petition,” he said.
The experience inside isn’t exactly universal.
Zamora, the priest who helped bring Nightfever to Chicago, called it a “Catholic amusement park,” where visitors “can plug into whatever you want or whatever you don’t want.” In fact, adoration and confession — both of which are available in the cathedral — are hallmarks of Catholicism that might be unfamiliar even to some Catholics.
But Miller, who studies liturgy at Chicago’s Mundelein Seminary, said the goal is simply to show another side of the Church to some who might not feel normally feel welcome.
“A lot of times people get this impression of the Church as just moralistic, hard, closed, but here the doors are literally open. We’re welcoming people in,” she said.
Kearney agreed, saying they simply want to get people through the door.
“What we’re trying to do is get people in the cathedral in front of Jesus, and let do Jesus do the heavy lifting,” he said.
Grzybowski, who stopped in on his way home from work, said he wasn’t sure if he’d make it back to the cathedral. But he said he enjoyed the few minutes he’d spent there anyway.
“And freakin’ hot chocolate,” he said, referring to the parting gift for participants. “I didn’t even know about that.”
In Cologne, the cathedral is located near the train station and next to the city’s main Christmas market, meaning huge crowds. Organizers there estimated that more than 3,000 people attended this month’s Nightfever. Still, there’s uncertainty about the lasting impact.
“You invite them in, and then you never see them again,” Pechmann said. But he’s heard stories of people reconnecting to the Catholic Church through Nightfever, and that’s what encourages him to continue.
“It’s very subtle, but it has a big impact,” he said.