If you’re walking by a Catholic church in Chicago, you just might be invited inside. That’s been happening more and more thanks to “Nightfever,” an evangelization program launched in Germany that has since spread to the Windy City.
One night a month, as walkers pass by the downtown Cathedral on their way to bars, shows, or parties, young Catholics stand on the street and invite them to light a candle or pray for peace. If the passerby agrees, a volunteer personally ushers them inside the cathedral where they find hundreds of others praying, singing, celebrating Eucharistic adoration, or meeting with a priest for Confession.
The movement has generated lots of positive buzz including a feature story in the Boston Globe website, Crux. It’s a tangible response to the Pope’s call to go out into the streets and draw people into a new encounter with the Lord.
Today I sit down with Fr. Brad Zamora and Megan Miller, two coordinators behind the movement, who explain how it works and why it’s been so successful.
BRANDON: How did Nightfever get started?
FR. BRAD ZAMORA: Nightfever got started after World Youth Day (WYD) in 2005. The young people in Cologne, Germany wanted to keep the spirit of WYD alive, and so they came up with this idea of Nightfever. The idea behindNightfever is simple: Open the church, invite people in, and let Christ work. At least that is what we have learned since bringing this to Chicago back in October of 2013. We opened the doors of Holy Name Cathedral for the first time on October 5, 2013 and we had about 350 come into Church and light a candle. That’s kind of how we hook those walking around downtown into the Church. We simply tell them why don’t you take a minute, come into the Cathedral and light a candle and pray for peace. Back when things were getting really serious in Middle East, Megan and I decided to give a focus to Nightfever so people had something real, something we all want, to pray for….sadly almost a year after making that decision we still are praying for peace, not only in the Middle East, but on the streets of our own city.
MEGAN: When the first Nightfever was held in Germany, they didn’t expect the response that they had – it was just supposed to be a one-time thing, to follow up from WYD. But it was a hit! It blew their minds how well it was received and how people responded to being invited to pray – and soon people wanted more, so they held it again. The next time, it was the same thing. And the idea (or the fever, if you prefer..) caught and spread like wildfire. The same thing kind of happened with us; we weren’t sure what to expect the first time. Would it really work? But the Holy Spirit took hold of it, just like when it first began in Germany. It blew our minds, too, and we couldn’t just not continue it.
BRANDON: How is a typical Nightfever event structured?
FR. BRAD ZAMORA: Every Nightfever kind of has the same schema. We start with Mass at 7:30 p.m. For us being at the Cathedral we plug into the regularly scheduled Saturday Evening Vigil Mass, and it works because there is a set congregation and we just add to the community that is already in place. As soon as Mass is over we convert the Cathedral into Nightfever mode, if you will. We get the Altar set for Adoration, we hang signs outside, we set candles all over the Cathedral, the band gets set up, basically we have 30-minutes to get our teams organized, and the place ready to go for Exposition at 9:00 p.m. We have a Welcome Team who is inside the Cathedral in the Narthex greetings those that come in off the street, we have a set-up/clean-up team who does just that, we have the Street Evangelizers who are out in the streets of the city inviting those passing by to stop in and light a candle and pray, we have our band who provides praise and worship throughout the whole evening, we have a team of priests who are available for confession, conversation and counsel, and then we have people who are just prayer warriors—this group of people prays for those who are out on the street evangelizing. The evening goes until 11:30 p.m., when we all gather back in the Cathedral and pray Night Prayer.
MEGAN: That pretty much sums it up! It’s actually such a simple concept – doors open, Christ on the altar, music, priests, welcoming environment, and personal invitation. The structure is very simple, it’s just like the Church – each person is using their gifts and what they’ve been given as laity or clergy, and coming together and bringing Christ to people and people to Christ. And none of it requires training – the volunteers arrive at 7:00 to check in and so we know we have enough people on every team, but there’s no extra commitment and no elaborate things to set up. I think that’s part of the beauty of it; it’s a reminder that evangelization is the responsibility of every Catholic, no training required.
BRANDON: What’s it like inviting people off the street to come in and pray? How do you typically ask and what are some common reactions?
MEGAN: Our street evangelization team is awesome! This is a group of people totally comfortable with approaching random people on the street and inviting them in to pray, ready for whatever response they get. Each volunteer has his or her own personality and way of approaching people, but the common theme is to say that the church is open, and to invite them to stop inside to light a candle and say a prayer, and to stay for as long or as short as they would like. We often invite them to pray for peace, especially if they don’t know what to pray for. It’s a completely non-threatening invitation, and I think most people are pleasantly surprised by it – we’re not standing on the street corner yelling “repent!”, we’re not bringing up hot-button issues that society normally associates with the Church, we’re not proselytizing in any way; we’re simply holding out our hand, so to speak, and inviting them in. We let Christ do the work from there. We see it as a way to live out Pope Francis’s description of the Church as a “field hospital after battle.” For some, that’s a face of the Church they haven’t seen before, and I don’t think people are used to being approached with love and invited to pray, regardless of their current situation in life. The responses are varied. Certainly there are negative ones – some people ignore us, some people laugh in the faces of our evangelizers, some people can be critical; but so many people respond positively, and will stop inside to pray before continuing on their way. Some people tell us that they aren’t Catholic, or that they (or their lifestyle) disagree with the Church on this or that issue, or that they haven’t been a practicing Catholic for years… and are pleasantly surprised to learn that we would still like them to come inside. And I’m sure every single one of our volunteers would have a story or two to tell you about a life-changing experience or encounter they’ve had with someone they’ve invited or welcomed inside. But even if a person only stops in for a second, they leave changed, and you can see it on their faces – Christ is there on the altar even if they don’t know it, and he knows their hearts and works in them. It’s pretty awesome.
BRANDON: Archbishop Cupich recently celebrated Mass at a Nightfever event. Have you received good support from the archdiocese and seminary?
FR. BRAD ZAMORA: I think when we first started this Nightfever event, everyone was a bit skeptical, and I don’t want to speak for Megan, but even I was skeptical as to what am I putting my name to…is this thing going to be a horrible flop. We were up against a lot at the beginning. But we did it, and we were amazed at the amount of people that came to Nightfever. When we asked to do it a second time, there was still some worry, but a little less, and this time we got the Archdiocese of Chicago Vocations Office and Young Adult Office to sponsor with us. They have been phenomenal in helping us get the word out about Nightfever. I guess after a year of Nightfever, and five Nightfevers later, I can say without a doubt, that Chicago has caught the fever, and people constantly ask when is the next, or how can we get involved. It’s such a simple thing we do in opening up the doors of the Church, but the results are remarkable. And….without the seminarians this would have never happened. They were our base for support and help at the beginning, now that the fever has been caught we have tons of young adults involved in the process, but the seminarians are always here to pray or lend a helping hand. They really are true disicples!
MEGAN: Yeah, everyone was pretty understandably skeptical at first – including us. We just weren’t sure how it would turn out! But more and more people are getting behind it each time. The Vocations Office and YAM Chicago have been incredibly supportive and help us a lot with publicity, Bishop Rojas and Fr. Barron have both celebrated a Mass and stayed to check out the event, and now Archbishop Cupich graciously celebrated Mass for us at the most recent Nightfever. Not to mention the many priests from around the Archdiocese and from the seminary who come to hear confessions, and the seminarians who were the backbone of our volunteers at the beginning and still are a major support in every facet of the prep. I think one of the best things about Nightfever is the way everyone comes together in making it happen, and it certainly couldn’t happen without all of the volunteers and the support we get.
BRANDON: What advice would you give others interested in launching Nightfever events in their own area?
FR. BRAD ZAMORA: It’s all about the location. You want to be in a location that has lots of people passing by so you can invite them in to encounter Christ through Nightfever. I say if you have a good solid team of volunteers and the support, I say do it! Megan and I coordinated this after never experiencing ourselves, and not really knowing what it was all about. But it is clear now that we both believe that Nightfever is touching hearts and changing them to be rooted in Christ. If she or I can help in anyway, don’t be afraid to contact us, we would be more than willing to help you launch this. The Church is better because Nightfever is a part of it!
MEGAN: Pray and plan – and then just do it! Once you decide on the best location, set a date and just start planning. As Fr. Brad said, we coordinated the first one before we had ever experienced a Nightfever ourselves, so a lot of planning went into it – making sure we had all the bases covered, enough volunteers, etc. It’s a simple event in terms of the elements involved, but organization is key – so it can feel daunting, but if we can help you in any way, please contact us! I will say, though, that ultimately this event and all evangelization is about letting Christ work, so prayer is equally important to the planning and organization.