Something mad is happening. Mass went viral this week in Ireland – the Facebook version. And this afternoon as I was walking through Waterford City there were people outside the Catholic cathedral wearing luminous vests with the words ‘Nightfever’ written on them inviting people to come into the cathedral. And people (of all ages) were steadily streaming in. Catholicism in Ireland seems to be as alive as ever but in more diverse forms and rather than being just a religion thing, it also serves as a cultural undercurrent that feeds into Irish identity.
I became aware of the Facebook ‘Mass’ phenomena when I noticed that a number of devout atheist friends were signing up for ‘Mass’, a Facebook page and event which was due to take place on the 30th October. One night during the week, overnight, the event amassed [ahem] hundreds of thousands of followers. The ‘Mass’ page, far from being full of old-school Irish Catholics was a newsfeed of trolls and memes about the Irish mass, Catholicism and Jesus. There were plenty of Father Ted quotes. There was one photo of an altar with the figure of Jesus sculpted into the front of in a horizontal position and facing the congregation. It read ‘Jesus planking’.
Then yesterday, on Barronstrand Street in Waterford City, I watched as middle aged men with ‘Nightfever’ luminous vests approached strangers and handed out red-plastic-covered night-light candles. Two teenage boys accepted the candles and headed for the cathedral doors. I went up towards the doors and asked a man wearing a blue sweatshirt with ‘Nightfever’ written on it what was happening. He offered me a candle and invited me in. I went in.
The cathedral was buzzing with activity. Large lantern candles were at the end of pews and lined up the aisles like an airplane runway. There were two or three (young and habitted) nuns and other busy helpers showing people where to go to light the little red-covered candles.
Families, elderly people, teenagers and children were filing up the main aisle towards the altar where they lit the little candles. A woman directed me to a tall candle from which I was to light the small nightlight. She kneeled as she showed me how to do it.
There was a large bright silver ornament on the altar. I asked a lady what it was and she said it was the ‘Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament’. I vaguely remembered the image and words from my childhood. There were what looked like large low table tops filled with burning candles. A man was softly strumming a guitar in one of the side aisles. A woman smiled nicely at me as she passed a little straw basket filled with small pieces of paper and told me to pick one, that they were bits of scripture. I dipped in my hand and fished out a piece. I opened and read it: ‘The Lord is my shepherd – I lack nothing. Ps 23:1.’
The same woman gently told me I was welcome to write a petition (pieces of paper and pens were provided) and place it in another basket which was brimming with folded white pieces of paper and was on the steps to the altar. She also told me the bishop was hearing confessions. I glanced at the darker side-aisle and saw lights on over two confession boxes. A door squeaked open and an elderly man came out of the ‘confession’ side of the box.
A scatter of people were sitting or kneeling in pews. Most looked contemplative. Some, like myself, looked curious. The man in the porch with the blue sweatshirt told me that ‘Nightfever’ is a fairly regular event and brings in around 700 people a go. He explained that it originated in Cologne and that it has been happening in Waterford for the past two years around every six weeks.
‘Nightfever’ involves Catholics engaging in missionary activities. Catholic missionary activity on Irish cities and streets seems almost as radical as a viral Facebook mass event. ‘Nightfever’ also takes place in lots of other cities around the world. Organisers explained that the aim is to get people to use the church space and to come inside the buildings. They are trying to foster a sense of the Catholic church as being open and welcoming.
By the evening of Saturday 30th the Facebook ‘mass’ event was over and the page was gone. The Facebook page had encouraged followers to give to charities and apparently it sparked a rise in donations to Pieta House. Meanwhile, the next Nightfever Waterford is on 23rd December from 6pm to 10pm with a mass at 5.30. I wonder if the event will be posted on Facebook.