PROVIDENCE — It's a Saturday night in downtown Providence. Blue stage lighting sweeps over a packed room, piercing through swirling clouds of thick, gray smoke. In the crowd beneath, teens and twenty-somethings sway hypnotically to the droning sound of live music.
Clearly, this isn't your average Holy Hour.
“This is probably a strange comparison, but it almost feels like a Catholic nightclub.” That's how organizer John Almonte describes Catholic Underground PVD, an evening of art and Eucharistic Adoration held on the second Saturday of every month at St. Patrick's Church, Providence. “It's just a great chance for people to come together and rediscover what makes Catholicism beautiful.”
According to Almonte, this sense of beauty and discovery is what inspired the very first Catholic Underground, held at the Church of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Manhattan. It was while visiting this church that Almonte attended his first Underground, and the evening made such an impression on him that he resolved to bring the event home with him. “When I came back and told Father James [Ruggieri, pastor of St. Patrick Church] that we needed something like this in Rhode Island, he got just as excited about it as I was,” Almonte recounts. “So we just had to hope that the friars would give us permission to use the Catholic Underground name.”
The clerics in question were the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, who designed the New York event to serve as a dynamic “cultural apostolate” that could help evangelize a younger and hipper crowd. Specifically, Father Augustino Torres, CFR, intended Catholic Underground to be a “direct response to a call that began with Pope John Paul II — who said that because the Gospel lives in conversation with culture, we must be fearless in crossing the threshold of the communication and information revolution now taking place.” The event proved extremely popular in very little time, and now regularly attracts crowds numbering in the hundreds. Because of their success with the model, the Franciscans have openly encouraged parishes throughout the country to host their own Underground communities, leading to the development of events like Catholic Underground Chicago, Catholic Underground D.C., Catholic Underground Harvard — and now, thanks to the efforts of Almonte and Father Ruggieri, Catholic Underground PVD.
Because the Underground mission is to bring Christ and culture into dialogue, each of these events has slightly adapted from the formula pioneered in New York in order to reflect the culture of their own communities. Catholic Underground Philly, for example, often features young rappers and hip-hop artists from parishes throughout the city, whereas the Boston event frequently pays tribute to Beantown's Irish heritage with an evening of Celtic music. All of these, however, are only minor variations on the central mission of Catholic Underground: immersing participants in the aesthetic experience of faith by blending the ancient ritual of Adoration with new works of art and performances by local Catholics. The Holy Hour always comes first, beginning with Vespers, and then offering congregants a chance to meditate upon the Host before a final Benediction. After Adoration has concluded, the event shifts focus to whichever local talents will be showcased for the evening — talents which can range from music to sculpture to drama to dance.
Although some Catholic Underground variants focus on one artistic style or another, the event at St. Patrick strives to emphasize the wide diversity of talents to be found throughout our diocese.
“We want to attract creative Catholics from every discipline,” says Almonte, noting that recently featured artists have included painter Sharon Clossick and Father Nicolas Fleming (assistant pastor of St. John and Paul Church in Coventry), who performed a set on the acoustic guitar.
According to singer Sarah Mulholland, what makes Catholic Underground such a unique venue for local artists is the chance to share their billing with a very special co-star. “It's amazing to be able to use your art to show people that God is here,” she said, motioning towards the monstrance. “I mean literally — He's right there.”
Siblings Alex and Emily Cuellar have both contributed their musical talents to Catholic Underground PVD, and agree that the Eucharistic focal point sets it apart from other faith-based artistic events. Alex, however, noted that there was also another sacrament that helped make the evening such a compelling experience. “We always have one or two priests available to hear confessions,” he explained. “The first night we did this, we had the longest line for confession that I've ever seen, and it was just an indescribable feeling for me and the band to think that our music was helping lead people to healing like that.”
One theme echoed by all participants was that words can't entirely capture the Catholic Underground experience. "You just have to go," said Doreen Ciancaglini, of St. Anthony's Parish in North Providence. She had heard about the event through Facebook, and admits that she was initially confused about the title.
"I was thinking, 'Underground? Is this like — subterranean, or something?" (It is, partially — the second portion of the event takes place in the school's basement.). "But it's such a profound experience, you can't describe it. You have to go, and then you'll keep going." Almonde encourages anyone interested in doing just that ("There's always a few first timers!," he says) to visit St. Patrick to experience Catholic Underground — the next event is March 9. For further information on attending or assisting with the event, please contact the Catholic Underground PVD Facebook page.