Monday, 27 June 2011

The Making of a Eucharistic Flash Mob

Br. Loarne, one of the friars I live with, is an ideas-machine. He’s forever coming up with new concepts and proposals, leaving me struggling to keep abreast of where he is. So it was quite unusual for me to blow him away with a new idea of my own. He’d been talking with an evangelist from our parish at Pantasaph in North Wales, and told me that they were hoping to do some sort of Catholic flash mob in their area. I suggested ‘flash-mob Eucharistic adoration’, and he staggered backwards across the room. Literally.

The idea had been long in germinating. Having been introduced to the phenomenon of flash mobs last year, the creative faculty somewhere in the back recesses of my mind started working away on the evangelistic possibilities. I looked at various Christian flash mobs, but wasn’t much inspired – except by the Alleluia Chorus one, which required more skill than I thought we had at our disposal. Besides, I wanted something more specifically Catholic. So it was at a Youth 2000 retreat, where they have continuous exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, that the idea of a Eucharistic flash mob first came to me. I use the phrase ‘came to me’ advisedly – I think it was a moment of inspiration, which do tend to happen in the Presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

At the time, I think I envisioned the flash mob as a possible Youth 2000 initiative. But I let the concept stew away in the aforementioned recesses of my mind, until Br. Loarne prompted it to come out of hiding. We quickly started praying and collaborating on the idea of doing it on our own patch in Preston. Both of us were partly motivated by a dissatisfaction with Corpus Christi processions and other ‘walks of witness’, which largely fail to make any connection with non-believers. I’d also often felt, on these Corpus Christi processions, a disappointment that no one among the passers-by would fall to their knees. “There must be some Catholics among them, after all”, I thought. So the prospect of modelling the proper response was appealing.

Our guardian, Br. John, gave us permission to go ahead. I then approached the parish priest of our intended location (a street called, appropriately enough, ‘Friargate’), who also gave permission. We've recently found out that we should have asked the bishop as well; but we didn't know that at the time, so we got on with the task of organising the event. Unlike many of the flash mobs you see on the internet, ours required no musical or dancing skill; all that was required of most participants was the ability to kneel on a hard surface. But we still had to gather together our ‘mob’ – I reckoned we needed at least 30 participants to make the necessary impact. Yes, I have to break it you – those of you who thought that the people kneeling were unprepared passers-by – most of them were part of the flash mob. But not all. At least four adorers were truly spontaneous. The fact that so many people have thought it spontaneous, however, is a sign of success – flash mobs are supposed to have the appearance of spontaneity.

Recruiting people for a novel event like this was difficult, not least because we wanted to keep the details from public circulation, and we were hampered by the fact that most Catholics hadn’t even heard of ‘flash mobs’. So the initial publicity was too mysterious, and only some personal appeals to some key groups got the necessary number together. Thanks are due in particular to the university students, the Irish travellers, and the parish of St. Wilfrid’s for responding with courage. People have written a lot about the bravery of us friars; but we’re used to standing out in public, unlike the brave souls who knelt down in the middle of the street.

Flash-mobbers getting
ready for action
As I wrote above, we wanted an event that made some connection with passers-by, so Br. Loarne came up with the idea of a ‘litany’ about Jesus with a refrain of “Come and kneel before Him now.” He got the litany from a Christian video on YouTube, but adapted it somewhat. He also thought up the plan for getting the sound system in position: having it brought along by a student using it to play reggae music, who could then switch tracks when the Blessed Sacrament was exposed.

The evangelistic element was even more significantly advanced by the presence of ‘undercover agents’ in the crowd, handing out cards designed by Br. Loarne (see picture), and taking opportunities to explain the proceedings to bemused onlookers. Ever tried to explain transubstantiation to a complete stranger? Top marks to our team of evangelists. It was also important that we had a follow-up to invite people to. Happily, we already had a series of ‘seeker services’ up and running.

Now to the central element of the whole event: Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. We were well aware that Eucharistic processions, the nearest precedent to what we planned, are supposed to involve cope, humeral veil, candles, and incense. But such rules are for the purpose of showing reverence to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, and we reckoned that such reverence would be adequately shown by the dramatic sight of people kneeling down before Him in a busy street. Using the full paraphernalia normally (and rightly) associated with Exposition would have two related disadvantages. Firstly, it would undermine the spontaneous appearance of  flash mobs, which is how they connect with people. People do not normally walk around with candles and thuribles hidden under their jackets. Secondly, such things would serve to distance the Sacrament from passers-by, adding layers of to-them-meaningless ritual.

We had to have a decent monstrance, of course, but one light-weight and small enough. After trying a couple of churches and convents, I found the ideal monstrance in the chapel of Corpus Christi College (fittingly). I thank the chaplain for the loan of it.

One worry during our preparations was over whether we should inform the police. But we reasoned that if we didn’t block any traffic, there was little cause for the authorities to be concerned. So it was important to choose a pedestrianised venue. The spot on Friargate outside the St. George’s Shopping Centre seemed ideal; we’d already done some more low-key evangelisation there on occasions. But we only settled on it after prayer and a reconnaissance mission (in which we visited the site on the Thursday before, to check on traffic conditions and other practicalities). As it happened, a policeman did come by during the flash mob, and strolled by unconcerned. It might have been different if we’d been spectacularly successful and hundreds of people were kneeling in worship, blocking the street up. But that would have been a nice problem to have.

A whole extra dimension was added by filming the event, which we thought very important, given that it seemed to be the first of its kind. Providentially, Sean Zaniboni, a student of sound production, had recently joined our chaplaincy community, and he enthusiastically took up the idea and used his contacts in the ‘Media Factory’ to get a team and equipment together. Gerardo Gonzalez also came in to help out with filming. The manager of the Black Horse Hotel kindly let us use an upstairs room to do filming from, and another cameraman took up position in a cafĂ©, while two others were free-roaming. One of the students kneeling in adoration had the sound-recording equipment concealed on her person. We did have to re-record Br. Loarne’s voice after the event, however, as it didn’t come across very clearly. And then Sean slaved for hours over the footage to put together the video in time for Corpus Christi. We should also mention Adam T., who took the photographs for us.

Br. Loarne briefing the participants
The choreography of our flash mob was simple compared to many others. At the preparatory meeting and briefing we split people into 5 groups, with instructions to arrive on the scene at different times (watches/phones had to be synchronised). The first group had to be the bravest, being the first to kneel down. I was to arrive at exactly1.15pm, and the first ‘kneelers’ 30 seconds after, once I’d elevated the monstrance. Others were to come on the scene at 1.16pm, and then at 1-minute intervals after that, so that the ‘congregation’ would slowly grow. The flash-mobbers were asked to start clapping and cheering at a certain point towards the end of Br. Loarne’s litany. Once again, the idea was to have something that seemed spontaneous, and which others could join in.

The stage having been set, it was fairly easy to walk up Friargate, as I often do, and stop and speak to one of the touts while I put on my stole. He was someone I’d met before, so he wasn’t surprised to see me. He was surprised, however, when I took out the monstrance with the Blessed Sacrament and held it up. “What’s that?!” he asked. “That,” I replied, “believe it or not, is Jesus.”

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

A People Set Apart

My last post, in which I wrote about the religious habit being a sign that I'm set apart to God, prompted the following question from a reader:

What does it mean to be set apart to God? I'm not trying to be rude, or mean, or anything negative, but help me understand. Being set apart to God doesn't make you any more special than everyone else, does it? I mean, everyone is special in God's eyes, so it couldn't be that. But then what does it mean to be "set apart"?

That's a good question, deserving of a thorough answer. And let me begin by quoting a better theologian than me. I providentially came across this relevant passage from Pope Benedict's latest book, 'Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week':

The process of consecration, "sanctification", includes two apparently opposed, but in reality deeply conjoined, aspects. On the one hand, "consecrating" as "sanctifying" means setting apart from the rest of reality that pertains to man's ordinary everyday life. Something that is consecrated is raised into a new sphere that is no longer under human control. But this setting apart also includes the essential dynamic of "existing for". Precisely because it is entirely given over to God, this reality is now there for the world, for men, it speaks for them and exists for their healing. We may also say: setting apart and mission form a single whole. (p.86)

This describes very well the way in which consecration is a 'setting apart'. And the following words of St. Peter supplement those of his current successor, by making it clear that this applies to all Christians, not just the members of religious orders:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him Who called you out of darkness into His marvellous light. (1 Peter 2:9)

It is baptism that consecrates the Christian to God, that raises him or her into a new sphere no longer under human control. So all the baptised are 'set apart', and this poses a bit of a puzzle with regard to 'consecrated religious' like myself. In what way are we more set apart?

I find it very helpful to reflect on how consecration into a religious order is not a sacrament; rather, the Church teaches that such consecration is rooted in and flows out of baptismal consecration. It is no more than an expression of our baptism – but it is a special expression. The way I see it is that religious consecration expresses more visibly and makes more obvious those things which are true for every Christian.

This is how I came to understand the place of the religious vows – poverty, celibacy, and obedience. All Christians should see God as their only treasure, and place all that they have and are at His disposal, relying on Him to provide for them. But the religious vow of poverty makes this inner attitude more obvious and immediate. All Christians should love God above and before all others. But the vow of celibacy makes the primacy of this relationship more obvious. And all Christians should accept God as their Lord, following his will in all things, finding their freedom in Him. But the vow of obedience brings the obedience we owe God into greater relief, by trusting that His will can be revealed through members of His Church.

These inner attitudes, whether expressed through religious vows or not, are aspects of Christian consecration – our 'setting apart' to God. The role of the religious brother or sister is to display this consecration more openly. Hence it is fitting that many religious wear a habit. The Christian's baptismal consecration always ought to be visible, even if only through the way he or she lives. So those whose gift is to be all the more visible will often wear something to make their consecration as obvious as can be.

To summarize, I see it in terms of the Sermon on the Mount. All Christians should be both 'the salt of the earth and the light of the world'(Matt 5:13-14). But the role of the laity lays more emphasis on being the salt, on being that subtle, unseen presence which gives flavour to everything else, which is often noticed only by its absence. Whereas for religious the emphasis is on being the light of the world, the city on a hill-top that cannot be hidden.