An excited group of girls behind me—ages five to eight, I think, walking with their mothers: some of them dribbling, others flinging, handfuls of rose petals drawn from their little white baskets. Next the censers, wafting smoke, and then the Sacrament itself, in its monstrance: a great golden sun on a pedestal. And then the priest in a long cope—white brocade, striped in black—standing beneath the canopy, its four posts held aloft by quiet, competent-looking men, pink boutonnières on their dark suit lapels. A phalanx of other priests in white and, finally, the long line of parishioners, singing the first of many Pange Linguas.
It looks like the procession of a king—which is, of course, the whole idea: We take the King of Kings out into the world with all the splendor we can muster. We celebrate the majesty of his presence among us. We hope that the passers-by will somehow be awed by the sight of their Lord.
As it happens, the humeral veil is missing a clasp and needs constant adjustment. The arm of the gate at the parking lot keeps dropping back down, as though demanding payment before we enter, even though someone has run into the office and is holding the button down. Later the canopy would get caught on a tree. As much as we reach for Heaven, we are only humans, after all. No one seems to mind.
Corpus Christi marks the end of the slew of feasts at the end of the Easter season, the last pomp and circumstance before the long days of Ordinary Time. I had heard that Our Lady of Good Counsel, a church on the Upper East Side, would have a procession to mark the feast, and so I decided to trek uptown.
I made a quick confession on a dilapidated staircase, and, once done, the priest hinted they could use some help. Soon I found myself buttoning on a bright red cassock and a small white cotta. A sacristy before Mass is the clerical equivalent of the locker room—full of either quiet precision and efficiency or utter chaos. This one belonged in the chaotic category—but it was a calm chaos; no one was worried, but everyone was busy, in a disorganized way. Four priests gave orders. New altar servers entered, then exited to set up chairs, then reentered. At last someone put a candle in my hands, and the pastor, Father Kaz Kowalski, a hefty Pole with a bushy mustache, pointed me down a narrow passageway that led to the back of the church.
I have heard praise for the beauty of Our Lady of Good Counsel, but, in truth, it’s something of an architectural oddity. The nave is short and wide, with galleries running along the sides. The ceiling is vaulted in that English Gothic style made famous in the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge, with columns sprouting branches that spread across the ceiling, and the eastern wall has the standard foliage of Gothic stonework—until you realize that the vaulting is painted plaster and the stonework painted wood. There’s a grand marble altar in the center, but the whole place wishes it were majestic and falls short.
At the beginning of the Mass and before our outdoor procession, I found myself with a brass candlestick in my hands, walking down the aisle ahead of the priests. The service itself seemed heartfelt and simple. Next to me on the bench was a boy, squirming as he waited for Mass to be over. Soon enough, it was, and the Corpus Christi troops began to tumble into place.
And then the procession began. We marched north for a block or so, then west through a park, and finally down Third Avenue and home again to the church on 90th Street. I was near the front, and occasionally I would look back to see the rest of the procession. The flower girls loved tossing their rose petals in the air. The thurifers swung their censers back and forth resolutely. The parishioners sang with calm persistence. I tended to rush ahead of the crucifer.
We ran into surprisingly few people that morning. Occasionally, a jogger would sprint past, or a few of the ubiquitous New Yorkers walking their dogs. Once we got to Third, there were more pedestrians. They would pause to let us by or step off the sidewalk onto the street. One or two whipped out their cell phones to photograph the spectacle. What their thoughts were, I could not tell.
Back at Our Lady of Good Counsel, we sang our final hymns and received our Benediction. In the sacristy, after a not-too-subtle prayer about priestly vocations for altar boys, I chatted a little and headed out. Father Kowalski, sweaty from walking under so many layers of fabric, wished me well. A few stray rose petals lay on the pavement where we had walked, the footprints of Christ as he passed through the city.
Nathaniel Peters is a junior fellow at First Things.