On the night of Ash Wednesday, hundreds of Catholics poured into the church of Holy Cross Parish in the Bronx, New York.
They represented the broad diversity of Catholicism in New York City: some were English-speakers, some spoke mostly Spanish, they came from Dominican, Puerto Rican, and African communities, from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and from parishes on suburban Long Island or New Jersey. There were lay people, priests, and religious brothers and sisters. There was even Bishop Joseph Espaillat, a New York auxiliary bishop resident in the Bronx.
They had all come to pray, to adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a monstrance on the altar. They had come to praise the Lord.
“And the house was just packed. It was kind of like wall-to-wall, and it was kind of like a moment of Pentecost,” said Fr. Vincent Druding, parochial vicar at Holy Cross, the priest who organized that Ash Wednesday prayer service.
“There were prayer teams, and music, and people just came and kneeled in the sanctuary close to the Lord. And by midnight, there were like 600 people there, still just praying and praising — and in the style of our communities; the style of the Caribbean Catholic culture is very charismatic, so that’s the style.”
“And we’ve done all this bilingual, English and Spanish, and it’s been powerful.”
“And people were just praising God, and it went on like that all night,” Druding said. “And that was really the beginning.”
The evening was the beginning of a revival project at Holy Cross parish — the brainchild of Druding and parish pastor Fr. John Higgins, who wanted to invite Catholics to a Lenten renewal of spiritual life, rooted in the spirituality of the charismatic prayer popular among many of the immigrant or ethnic communities connected to the parish.
The idea, which the parish has come to call the Zion Revival, was inspired by monthly praise and worship nights at the parish, and by the Asbury Revival, a weeks-long spiritual revival at a Methodist university in Kentucky, which in February drew tens of thousands to pray in its chapel.
Druding emphasized that while the Zion Revival was inspired by the Asbury Revival, the two are not the same. While the Asbury Revival was completely spontaneous, the priests at Holy Cross have intentionally opened their church to invite people to pray, and have invited musicians to come and lead worship.
“It’s a little bit of apples and oranges,” Druding explained. “It’s not of the same character as [the Asbury Revival].”
“Asbury was part of the conversation. But a southeast Bronx parish, with a largely working community, is not like a university setting. But when I watched some of the Asbury Revival on YouTube, I thought, ‘we could do something like this’ — and that was like a moment of grace.”
‘The ball just started rolling’
Druding told The Pillar that in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday - Feb. 22 - he and Higgins discussed how they could invite Catholics to a spiritual renewal in their parish. Druding said that Higgins, who “usually likes a lot of long-term planning,” was quickly keen to support the idea.
The parochial took his pastor’s support as a sign of God’s blessing for the plan.
“Once you have permission from the authority of the Church … locally the pastor, and then the bishop, we can go forward with total abandonment to God,” Druding said.
“And from there, the ball just started rolling.”
The parish does not usually have perpetual exposition of the Eucharist - few parishes in New York City do, Druding explained. But Druding and Higgins decided that for the whole of Lent, the parish would expose the Blessed Sacrament on the church's main altar at every hour except during Mass. And they’d invite musicians to play music in the evenings, preach at prayer services, organize prayer teams, and invite other priests to come and hear confessions. They’d livestream as much of it as they could, he said.
“And then it really has been a sense that this is of God,” Druding said.
“At the beginning, we asked different groups in the parish to cover adoration at the difficult hours, when we didn’t think anyone would show up. And different groups divided up hours and they covered them. But from then, we really haven’t done much organization at all to cover these hard-to-fill hours, like in the middle of the night, or in the middle of the day when people are working.”
“People just show up, and they’re there just to adore the Lord. And many beautiful things are happening during those quieter hours of adoration — just people offering devotional prayers, and people are coming from different places to just adore the Lord, because [adoration] is not so often available here in the Bronx.”
While hundreds of people attended the early nights of prayer and praise at Holy Cross, Druding told The Pillar that he and Fr. Higgins were unsure the energy would be sustained. But members of local religious orders — the Sisters of Life, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, and the Order of Preachers — soon began attending, and as word spread on social media Catholics began to come from across the New York metropolitan area — and from further afield.
A week after Holy Cross launched the Zion Revival, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan hosted Druding for a conversation on his satellite radio show, “Conversations with Cardinal Dolan.”
People kept coming, and have continued to come in the weeks since.
The prayer at the Zion Revival, Druding said, is focused on the Eucharist, and rooted in the charismatic style of the ethnic communities in his parish.
“Charismatic” prayer is typified by believers praying in tongues, engaging in small groups of intercessory prayer, and praying for prophetic “words” or guidance from the Holy Spirit.
It gained a foothold in the Catholic Church in the 1960s, when college students at Duquesne University and the University of Notre initially experienced the charismatic devotions which had cropped up in American Pentecostal and other Protestant communities since the early years of the 20th century, beginning in Black Wesleyan communities in Los Angeles.
Charismatics — and theologians supportive of the charismatic renewal — cite Scripture and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to argue that God graces believers with spiritual gifts, or charisms, among them speaking or understanding tongues, prophecy, discernment of spirits, or particular and supernatural wisdom.
Charismatics generally say that such graces are meant to be an ordinary part of the Christian life, and point to the presence of charisms in the writing of Christian mystics, or the early history of the Church.
Many charismatic Catholics say that while charisms are imparted in the sacraments of baptism and confirmation, they can be “stirred up” or manifested through “baptism in the Holy Spirit,” a non-sacramental and devotional experience of intercessory and personal prayer.
While some Catholics have criticized charismatic prayer as overly emotive — or subjective — the Holy See has in recent decades supported the charismatic renewal, which has grown especially popular among Catholics in Latin America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa.
Since 1993, the Vatican has recognized a series of umbrella organizations coordinating and overseeing charismatic groups, with Pope Francis centralizing those organizations as CHARIS, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal International Service, a public juridic person falling under the purview of the Dicastery for Laity, Family, and Life.
Druding acknowledged that not all Catholics have experience with the charismatic renewal, and that some are skeptical of the movement’s authenticity, or its consistency with Catholic doctrine.
“I would say to come and see,” he said. “You can really know through the encounter — the experience.”
“But you know, the fact is that God does speak to us through our imagination. He speaks to us through words that he puts into our mind and hearts, and even through feelings. But most of all — what I'm interested in through the Zion Renewal — is encounter. The encounter of the presence of God.”
“And there's been incredible love for Jesus in the Eucharist through these nights, through this encounter that people are having.”
‘I just wanted more of God’
As they continue, Druding said that priests, especially, have experienced spiritual renewal at the parish prayer meetings.
Among those priests was Fr. Michael Trummer, a priest of Springfield, Illinois, who heard about the Zion Revival, and traveled to the Bronx to be a part of it.
Trummer, 31, heard about the Zion Revival on a group text of friends.
“My friend Laura sent a video, and I was like: ‘This is exciting,’ because I’d heard about what’s going in Asbury and I’m like, ‘Man, I want revival, just deep revival in our Church.’”
“So when she sent that, I knew it wasn’t the same scale or magnitude as Asbury, but it was still a type of revival — and very focused on Eucharistic revival as well. And I just felt like this was really, really encouraging.”
Trummer said that soon after he’d heard about the Zion Revival, he got an unusual gift from his boss, the pastor of St. Barnabas Catholic Church in Edwardsville, Illinois.
“Out of nowhere, my pastor’s like, ‘Why don’t just take the weekend off for your birthday?’ And that’s pretty nice, ‘cause it’s hard to get weekends off as a priest,” Trummer laughed.
“So I called the parish, and I asked if the revival was still going on, and I said a little bit more about myself, and I was pretty blunt. I just said that I was a priest and asked if there were any spots at the rectory where I could and stay. And the secretary said she’d check with the pastor and get back to me.”
“And I was thinking, like, ‘Man, I know they’re probably really busy, so I don’t know if they’re going to get back to me.’ But a couple of hours later, a secretary called and said there was a place at the rectory, if you’re willing to do other things at the parish like confession and Mass. And, it’s like, cool. So I flew out Saturday morning.”
Trummer had not grown up with experience in the charismatic movements of the Catholic Church. But while a seminarian, at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, he attended a “Life in the Spirit Seminar” — an optional retreat inviting seminarians to pray for the gifts of the Holy Spirit, in the style of devotion characteristic of the charismatic renewal.
Trummer visited Holy Cross March 11 to 14.
The priest said he hoped to encounter the Lord at the parish — “I just wanted more of God, basically.”
“Obviously, we can encounter God anywhere. I can be sitting in my kitchen and I can encounter God, I can especially encounter God in any Catholic church where Jesus is present in the Eucharist. I have encountered God in local parishes,” he said.
“But there is a sense that … I was motivated to go [because] although God's present everywhere, and he's always pouring out his life, there are times and places where he's particularly moving.”
“Someone could have encountered God anywhere on the face of the earth on the day of Pentecost, but really the place to be would've been the Upper Room.”
When he got to Holy Cross, Trummer saw “a lot of people going to confession at different times…and then during the day was perpetual adoration, but the Jesus in Zion evenings would start around 8:00 in the evening, and it was just really encouraging — there was teaching, and time for people to receive prayer ministry, and people going to confession, sometimes even until 2:00 a.m.”
“It was just really beautiful to see that the main thing going on there was just Jesus. People were there to praise God,” he said.
Trummer said he was encouraged by Druding’s encouragement of him during the revival.
“Two of the nights I was there, Father Vincent just let me lead it and m.c. it — so he was not like: ‘This is my thing and I have to do it my way.’ … He had this trust, and it wasn’t like ‘his thing,’ where he had to do things his way … he was very trusting in letting other people get involved. That really struck me, that sign of trust.”
Trummer was also encouraged in his priesthood, the preist said, adding that the “generosity” of Frs. Druding and Higgins, the parish priests, was a source of inspiration for him.
That generosity, he said, seemed to be a particular fruit of the Holy Spirit.
“It was just so inspiring to see their generosity was not like a sense of obligation or burden. They were just so joyfully and generously giving of themselves. In fact, that would probably be the biggest grace I received, was seeing priesthood lived with such a generosity, joy and love.”
Going home after a few days in the Bronx, “I just have such a conviction about that,” Trummer said.
“And I’m sure I’ll have my struggles as I try to do that in my priesthood, but I’m attracted to that selflessness. Not just to die to self and suffer some because that’s what you’re supposed to do, or because that’s what holy people do. But I have this real desire and attraction to lay down my life for my sheep.”
Like Druding, Trummer recognized that not all Catholics have experience with the mode of prayer expressed at Holy Cross.
“The revival that’s happened is not just emotion — the praise and the prayer happening there is not exclusively emotional praise, it's not even exclusively praise and worship. There's deeper prayer and conversion happening there — there's a lot of people going to confession. There's a lot of people who are spending time in silent adoration.”
“And I would say that emotions are good. There are temptations in regards to emotion. One would be to be overly emotional, or to conjure up or force emotions, or thinking that prayer has to be emotional. The other temptation that can be common is not to allow a healthy expression of emotions.”
“And my question to someone who feels a resistance to praise which has more emotional expression — to more charismatic praise — is this: People get so excited for a sports game, yelling at the top of their lungs, painting their faces, clapping and cheering. So if we are in the presence of the God of the universe who loves us, how could that not be manifest in our emotions?”
“Scripture calls us to things like ‘shouts of joy.’ Have you ever heard anyone in your life shout for joy, or clap their hands in praise, with joy? Because I think those could be really, very biblical ways of praising God.”
‘It’s honestly been a gift’
Druding also emphasized the presence of the musicians invited to lead praise and worship during the Zion Revival.
Among them was Marisel Rodriguez, a musician and worship leader from New Jersey, who has been an instrumental part of leading the prayer and praise at Holy Cross.
Rodriguez said she has been struck by an experience of ecclesial unity at the Zion Revival project.
“On Ash Wednesday, it was over 600 people and it was bilingual. So it was a beautiful time to have both communities come together for an event like this. Usually for adoration, [the music] is catering to one community because sometimes it's hard to sing songs [in a second language]. But we were able to do this fully bilingual and people were very receptive.”
Rodriguez said that Holy Cross parish has invited musicians from a broad region to lead praise sessions, with at least one coming from as far as Florida. The music has reflected a broad spectrum of styles and cultures, Rodriguez said.
“And it’s been honestly a gift. It has been like a booster for me this Lent. I’m 33 years old, and I have to say that this has been my most favorite season of my life in Lent. I’m not ever going to forget the experience of having this Eucharist-centered revival available to people. It's just beautiful to see people come back to [church], you know.”
Rodriguez shared the story of one attendee, who had invited her nephew to attend an evening of prayer at the church.
“He hadn’t been in a church for over 15 years. And she, well, she shot her shot, you know? She invited him to come, and he has just kept attending, she told me.”
“I think the Church needs an awakening, and it has really been a gift to be a part of this,” Rodriguez said.
Druding told The Pillar that he expects the Zion Revival will come to an end at Easter in his parish.
But he said he hopes it will inspire more frequent Eucharistic adoration in the New York archdiocese, and more openness to a revival rooted in the Holy Spirit, in parishes in New York and in other parts of the country.
The archdiocese itself said it hopes for the same.
New York’s Cardinal Dolan “has been very impressed with the exuberant demonstration of faith currently taking place at Holy Cross parish,” a spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, told The Pillar.
Noting that Dolan has visited Holy Cross, Zwilling said that “as we approach Holy Week and Easter, it would be wonderful if what is happening at Holy Cross inspired an increased participation in the various liturgies, a heightened awareness of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and an ongoing devotion to the Eucharist and Eucharistic adoration.”
In agreement was Fr. Ignatius Schweitzer, OP, of Manhattan, who has attended several nights of the Zion Revival.
“I experienced [there] a sense of the Lord moving, gathering people together,” he explained.
“Twice, when I’ve left the parish, someone got me an Uber to get home, so I wouldn’t have to take public transportation. And two times I invited the Uber driver to come in, and both times, those Uber drivers had profound experiences. They were both baptized Catholics from the Dominican Republic, and both came in, and we prayed over them, and both had sort of powerful experiences of the Lord,” the priest said.
“One is going to start coming to Mass. This just happened on Sunday night, but he’s going to start attending Spanish Masses at Holy Cross in the Bronx.”
“And so, to see that evangelical side of the Holy Cross revival is important, and that has caused me to be bold in evangelical fervor,” he added.
“That’s been a big part of this experience — reaching out to fallen away Catholics, people on the fringes of the Church, people who don’t come to church, and trying to draw them back.”
“And I am seeing that happening at Holy Cross in the Bronx.”