Thousands of football fans streamed into downtown Phoenix last week to enjoy the NFL Super Bowl Experience at the Phoenix Convention Center, right across the street from St. Mary’s Basilica and the Diocese of Phoenix headquarters.
They had no idea the mercy of God would greet them at the corner of Third Street and Monroe.
That’s because a six-foot-high wooden confessional was standing right there on the sidewalk. Nearby, volunteers stood at a table heaped with crucifixes, Miraculous Medals, pamphlets, rosaries and holy cards.
From rookie diocesan priests to a feisty 90-year-old member of a religious order, priests heard confessions on the street over the course of three days.
“I haven’t been in 30 years,” one man told The Soulful Catholic. “I might cry.”
With a little encouragement, the man made his way over to the confessional.
He wasn’t the only one. At one point, there were three priests standing outside the basilica extending God’s mercy. That’s because Fr. Vince Guest, chaplain for the Philadelphia Eagles, and his buddy Fr. Nick, joined the sidewalk evangelization effort. They’d never seen anything like it before but jumped right in.
So how did this quiet little revolution begin?
Praying on ESPN?
Capitalizing on the unprecedented outpouring of prayerful support for Buffalo Bills’ Damar Hamlin, who suffered cardiac arrest during an NFL game Jan. 2, the diocesan communications team planned to hoist a 30-foot banner atop St. Mary’s Basilica to welcome football fans to the downtown area. And, maybe a few signs indicating Mass times at the basilica might encourage Mass attendance, right?
That’s when things got interesting. I mean, as long as you’re inventing ways to reach out with a message of faith, why not dream big?
What if we gave out sacramentals?
What if we gave out candles people could light and leave inside the basilica?
What if we offered confession?
What if we met people right where they are and invited them into the arms of Jesus?
See, on the outside, people walking into an entertainment venue might look just fine. On the inside though, their hearts are often breaking. They might not realize that what they long for is the love and healing only Jesus can offer them.
Improvise, adapt and overcome
With just two weeks to go until kickoff, it was going to take a miracle to get this project off the ground. And as Providence would have it, two weeks was all it took.
Priests signed up to fill two-hour shifts. Volunteers made sacramentals and said they would staff the evangelization table. The print shop at the Diocese of Phoenix cranked out little gems like “How to Pray the Rosary,” “A Guide to Confession,” and “10 Reasons to Return to the Catholic Church.”
The big day was upon us and the team was about to set up shop on the sidewalk when an unexpected obstacle emerged: A team of loud, anti-Catholic street preachers landed in the area we had designated for our event. They weren’t thrilled when we asked them to relocate but ultimately agreed.
They and others spent the next two days camped out across the street using amplified sound to malign the Catholic faith.
“You don’t need a Catholic priest to confess your sins,” one railed. You could see football fans cringing at the rhetoric. And actually, the ongoing barrage worked in our favor.
“We’re not with them,” we pointed out to fans as they walked past our corner. “We’re just here to share the love of Jesus. Would you like a cross? They’re free!”
Most people said yes. Some said no but then did a double-take and came back. “Wait. They’re free? You guys are Catholic?”
As more and more people in Eagles and Chiefs jerseys walked by our set-up, inspiration struck:
“Hey, did you know Jesus is an Eagles’ fan?” we asked. People laughed and smiled. “Of course He was,” some joked.
“Well, He’s actually a Chiefs’ fan, too. And He’s your biggest fan. He gave His life for you!” We handed them the crucifix necklace along with a holy card explaining why Jesus died for us.
If they stopped to chat, we offered them a water bottle and a granola bar. Our method, learned from Saint Paul Street Evangelization, is to listen and befriend before proclaiming and inviting.
Establishing common ground, listening to the struggles and pain of others and then sharing the hope and love of Jesus Christ wins hearts. Having confession easily and instantly accessible was something they’d never encountered before.
Asking for help
Our sign, “Can We Pray for You?” attracted a fair share of attention, too. We stood there and prayed for lost teenagers, broken families and ailing parents. We lifted up difficult pregnancies and cantankerous relatives. We kept a list and promised to continue praying for every single person on it.
By the third day we were handing out turkey sandwiches to the homeless and members of the Phoenix Police were stopping by our table for water bottles.
Things happened during those three days of evangelization that shouldn’t have been at all possible. The Soulful Catholic, who has long struggled with back problems, was somehow able to move that massive, six-foot confessional out of the sun all by herself — with absolutely no pain.
When a Phoenix Police detective told us a group of belligerent protestors was headed our way — an outfit known for provoking fistfights — a sense of peace surrounded us anyway. We knew a convent of nuns was praying their hearts out for our safety.
Amazingly, the protestors arrived but turned and went the other way instead of passing in front of us.
There’s just no rational explanation for any of these astonishing occurrences. No explanation other than the grace of God.
Hearts were healed. The Gospel was announced. The lost were found.
And all because we wondered, “What if?”
What if we reimagined how to spread the Good News? What if we offered the mercy of God publicly?
Perhaps it is in going out to the streets, seeking out the lost and brokenhearted, that we will fill our churches once again.