On a Greenwich Village street corner, amid a throng of man buns and designer sun hats, the priest held up the monstrance, aureate and glistening. The public square was filled with a sticky, sweet smell—not the usual resinous notes of cannabis, but the rich scent of myrrh. Two thuribles were swung by youngish, steady-eyed acolytes. Performers in the square paused to gawk at the procession, allowing us to hear each other as we chanted the Adoro te devote.
In a metropolis known for parades so huge they halt traffic, this small Corpus Christi procession interrupted the evening commute only briefly (following the Roman custom, it was held last Thursday). Perhaps that is why no one mocked or derided us. Or maybe the Village’s bourgeois bohemians were simply dumbstruck, bemused by this incongruous display of medieval-looking piety on streets begrimed by postmodern irony. What was the point of such a public pium exercitium, anyway?
American Catholicism is distinguished by its inevitable visibility. Cardinal Robert Sarah stressed this point in his recent address at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. In his opening remarks, Sarah appealed to American Catholics not merely as believers, but as citizens and public witnesses:
As you well know, what happens in the United States has repercussions everywhere. The entire globe looks to you, waiting and praying, to see what America resolves on the pressing challenges the world faces today. Such is your influence and responsibility.
It is often easy—too easy—to resign ourselves to cultural collapse. The Republic seems to be dying. What can we believers really do, save pick out a dirge?
Sarah urged that the world has more faith in us than that. That even if the majority of the global population will follow happily in the U.S.’s slouch toward wherever it is we are heading, there are others who refuse to buy what secular progressivism is peddling. They continue looking—beyond all the headlines—for signs of sane resistance and refutation. Because they believe that such signs can be found. Because, much as it may surprise us, we actually do have that influence, and that responsibility.
The incense wafting through Greenwich Village on Thursday evening let off more than a sweet aroma. It also emitted “the [i]nexpungeable odor of the long past,” to appropriate a phrase from E.B. White. In that ephemeral smoke was something paradoxically solid, substantial. Something lasting and resistant to our “liquid modernity” (sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s concept, helpfully elucidated by Rod Dreher), in which individuals operate without solid institutional and social bonds. The scent may have been entirely foreign to many onlookers, but they experienced it. The display was concrete.
One aspect of the crowd’s response to this traditional procession was itself old-fashioned: Virtually no one took out a smartphone to capture the spectacle. What they saw, their gaze unmediated by screens, was a unified formation, consisting largely of young Catholics, that proceeded from the Church, visibly witnessed to the Church, and returned into the Church, in the hope that others might follow.
Jordan Zajac, O.P., is a Dominican brother of the Province of St. Joseph and a summer intern at First Things.