The lanterns glow through the dusk as the summer evening darkens into twilight. Meanwhile revelers in the garden square make their way slowly to the gates as the park-keeper gradually rounds them up. More noisily, some drunken singers enjoy themselves in a corner of the square, and the pounding beat from a rock band emerged from a nearby club. A cymbal-chasing Hare Krishna group chants its way along a nearby street. People, all sorts of people—family groups, and girls-night-out groups, and smooching couples, and preoccupied people with headphones and/or mobile phones—are hurrying to and from restaurants and pubs, a lively clatter of talk and music clashing with the noise of traffic and the ringing of rickshaw bells.
This is Soho Square, just off London’s famous Oxford Street, and the glowing lanterns are for “Nightfever” at St. Patrick’s Church. They are held by young people who wander among the wanderers, the hurrying crowds, the purposeful and the lost-looking, pausing just to offer, to anyone who seems likely to be interested: “Would you like to come in and light a candle?” The invitation, often initially rebuffed— “Er, no, I’m all right, thanks”; “Sorry, I’m busy”; “Um…does it cost anything?”—is then, sometimes, randomly accepted, and with a look of vague bafflement mixed with curiosity, someone enters the church behind a lantern-bearer who leads the way.
The Blessed Sacrament is on the altar in its glittering monstrance, flanked by tall candles. Along the wide, marble altar rails, the small lights of people’s candles are beginning to gather—by the end of the evening there will be hundreds of them. Down the main aisle, at the end of each pew, lanterns glow, gently illuminating the path to the sanctuary area. In the pews, dozens of young people kneel in silent prayer, and to one side a group of singers offer chants and songs, honoring Christ in the Eucharist in words of adoration, love, and praise, interspersed with occasional prayers or short Scripture readings, and periods of silence.
Volunteers go out in pairs into the streets to invite people in. The volunteers are all mostly young. I’m not. But having once taken part in Nightfever I found a return visit irresistible, so have been allowed to join the teams.
Today’s young people can be astonishing: I was paired with a sweet, apparently rather shy girl on her first venture into street evangelization, and felt vaguely protective and motherly towards her, wondering if she felt frightened and apprehensive as we headed out into Soho. How daft of me: in conversation it emerged that on leaving university she had headed for Vietnam to work in a leper colony, knowing nothing of the language and without any concrete plans except a desire to help. “It was amazing—the people there had nothing, and there were nuns who were just wonderful and were looking after a whole lot of orphans too. It was the best time of my life.”
And the people we invited in? Lots and lots of them, all so different. The “No, we’re too busy” group that suddenly changed their minds and came in, and knelt there reverently in silence, lighting candles and writing prayer requests to leave by the altar. The young couple who came in giggling together, and knelt happily, leaving still smiling. The older lady who touched my arm and whispered, “Thank you for this.” The young man and woman who refused to light candles saying, oddly, “It’s not convenient for us,” but who stayed kneeling for a long, long time, gazing and gazing at the Blessed Sacrament. The practicing Catholic, the non-practicing Catholic (“I came to Mass here once; lovely to be back again”), the sort-of-practicing Catholic (“I’m Catholic actually, don’t do much about it though…”).
And the ones who announce that they won’t come, but then do. This is Soho, famous for its homosexual culture and associated bars. “The Church hates us,” one man said, while his partner nodded in agreement. “No hatred here,” we told them. Didn’t press the invitation. Moved on. Later we saw them kneeling in the candlelit glow.
Of course lots say “no thanks” and stick with “no thanks.” They are busy, they are preoccupied, they have issues they don’t want or need to share with us. We aren’t there to talk or to convince, or to do anything, really, except to offer the opportunity to go into the church and light a candle. No evangelistic overtures, no come-and-listen-to-this-convincing-speaker. Just God and silence.
Does it work? I don’t know. Nor does anyone else—except God, of course. And perhaps some of his ministers, and they can never talk about it. There are three or four priests at the back of the church and in the side aisles, hearing confessions. Many Catholic groups make a point of coming to Nightfever simply to have a time of prayer and an opportunity for the Sacrament of Reconciliation; one priest brought his confirmation group along specifically for this. Who knows whether or not the penitents also include some of those random people who have come into the church just to light a candle? Don’t know. Can’t ask.
Nightfever began in Germany, a response to the call for a New Evangelization. In Europe’s too-often-godless modern cities, it offers deep oases of prayer. It relies on witness rather than on teaching. It offers a sense of warmth and welcome in the loneliness and anonymity of current Western life. It cherishes silence. It gathers the human and spiritual resources of the new movements that have emerged in the Church’s life in recent decades. It echoes with experiences of World Youth Day and the atmosphere of Catholic young people united in prayer across what would otherwise be barriers of language and nationhood. It taps into a certain longing for human companionship linked to a desire for private space in encountering God. It unites all involved with the Church’s heritage of prayer.
Soho’s Nightfever ends with Compline—glorious singing in the church, now lit with so many candles—and with Benediction. It’s almost a wrench to leave. There have been some refreshments for volunteers at the start of the evening, but some of the young people will probably go on for a quick pizza somewhere. This middle-aged journalist will trek home to the suburbs and try to capture the whole experience for readers, some of whom will sneer, while others will feel that perhaps the value of such events is over-rated…while others again will read too much into it and announce that surely here is evidence of a speedy, soon-to-be-achieved wide revival of the Faith. We should leave all that to God. What really matters is that He is at least being given an opportunity to speak, through prayer and silence, to people in London. And being a witness to that is simply wonderful.