On a Friday night in November two years ago, Sam McGowan biked past St. Augustine Church, the Catholic student center at the University of Florida, Gainesville. He felt something pulling him toward the church, but he worried that if he stopped he’d be locked out of the homeless shelter where he was staying. He parked his bike and entered a side door.
The church was unusually full for a late Friday night. McGowan, now 33, went to the altar where he knelt in front of the Blessed Sacrament, surrounded by hundreds of candles on the altar steps. He heard Christ speaking to him, giving him strength. He felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as other adorers held his hands and prayed while he wept. He later added a candle at the altar, having received from the Lord confidence that he would make it, despite being homeless and struggling to overcome a criminal background.
McGowan’s encounter happened at Nightfever, a unique evening prayer service held at a growing number of Catholic churches in the United States and around the world. At Nightfever, which originated after World Youth Day in Cologne, Germany, in 2005, teams of volunteers invite hundreds of passersby to enter a cathedral — usually in a busy area — or church to pray for peace. Once inside, guests receive a candle to light and place on the altar steps in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Nightfever offers people of all backgrounds an opportunity to come inside a church to pray for, and find, peace in Christ’s presence, while it also gives those who invite them the chance to share their faith.
All are invited — churchgoers or not — including those in evening gowns, walking dogs, eating ice cream cones and even those who are inebriated.
“Some folks are on their headphones, wearing their backpacks. We stop them and they unplug an earbud and maybe they walk in, or maybe we get these folks with their seven bags from Neiman Marcus on Fifth Avenue,” said Brice Acosta of Brooklyn, New York, who has volunteered as a street evangelist at Nightfevers held at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City.
The invitation is simple, and unlike other faith programs, there are no religious requirements, said Mario Bruschi, who helped organize the first NYC Nightfever in November 2013. The next one was to take place Nov. 19, he said.
“What’s great about Nightfever is that the cathedral’s main doors are wide open, so when people see the cathedral doors open — and they’re massive doors [of] a very unique landmark building in the middle of Fifth Avenue — they wonder what this building is ... and it invites them to come inside and look around.”
As visitors enter the darkened church, they are given a tea-light candle. Soft music plays as people sit and pray in the pews. Visitors are guided to the altar area, where they light their candle and place it with many candles already burning on the aluminum-foil-covered altar steps. The altar is draped with red and white fabric, signifying Divine Mercy, and the Blessed Sacrament is exposed.
One reason Nightfever is successful is that it’s interactive, said Mark Michuda, Knights of Columbus church director for Indiana who helped organize a Nightfever at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Fort Wayne, Indiana, on Sept. 11. Over the course of the event, volunteers gave out more than 2,100 candles.
“We’re asking them to do something,” Michuda said. “We’re saying, ‘Your prayer matters. We need you to come in and light a candle.’ We’re inviting and asking that. There’s no strings attached. You’re free to leave any time you want. They’re free to go in and meet Christ on their own.”
Some visitors spend a minute. Others stay to pray or explore the church or cathedral, not always aware that they are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Most show reverence by observing silence and taking off their hats, said Megan Miller, who has helped coordinate the 12 Nightfevers held at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, most recently on Oct. 1. Chicago organizers place sheets in the pews explaining adoration and confession.
Miller is inspired by Pope Francis’ description of the Church as a field hospital and worries less about small details during Nightfever.
“The fact is that people who maybe don’t encounter faith any other way in their day-to-day lives are being reached,” she said. “They are given a different perspective of the Church than they have in mind.”
College students come to Nightfever seeking fulfillment, and whether or not they know it, they are seeking Christ, said Sabrina Sy, who coordinates Nightfever at St. Augustine Church in Gainesville, Florida.
“On a college campus there are so many distractions and so many things trying to pull [students] away and Satan trying to tempt them to fall away from the Church and from Christ. It’s vitally important that we draw them back in and not lose them at such a young age.”
In some locations, prayer teams intercede for visitors and for the evangelists reaching out to them. Priests are available to hear confessions or to talk. Anywhere from two to 20 priests have heard as many as 230 confessions at a Nightfever.
Up to God
Father Connor Danstrom, associate pastor at St. Benedict in Blue Island, Illinois, has served at many Chicago Nightfevers, both before and after being ordained a priest. Serving as both confessor and counselor, he said, “You don’t know what to expect. It’s always up to God. You have no idea who’s going to come in and open their heart for the first time in decades. …They may need someone to talk to, that they can be 100 percent honest with, to tell their struggles, failures and insecurities. Others’ lives are shipwrecks, and they need someone to help them with the next step.”
Seeds are planted, though clergy and organizers don’t often see the results. In the two years since McGowan encountered Christ at Nightfever in Gainesville, his life has changed. He offers prayers of gratitude daily. He now has an apartment and is studying social work in college, in hopes of someday opening a shelter for women and children.
As for what beckons passersby like McGowan to pause and enter a sacred space and light a candle, Bruschi said he hopes they recognize it’s the Lord.
“It’s God, just being with him,” he said. “I think people just want to be with God. They want to be where they feel his love. That’s where they gain a lot of strength.”
Susan Klemond writes from Minnesota.