I love going to Mass. It reminds me on a regular basis why I am here. As a child I found it boring and stopped going as soon as I left home. But I think I understand now. I particularly like going to Mass when I’m abroad. Even when I don’t understand the language I can follow the structure and take part. It’s a bit like dancing to unfamiliar music. You still get the rhythm.
So it was in Holland last week. I rushed to a Mass by following the bells. I didn’t know where I was going but the bells drew me near. Sadly, as often these days, I was one of the youngest in the congregation. The priest was the youngest of all and that’s unusual. Elderly priests struggle and I always end up wishing the bishop would give him leave to retire like most of us do eventually. After a lifetime of service it’s a pity they can’t. Of course there are answers to this problem but I won’t go into that now.
What I find fascinating are the variations in the Mass in different countries. In this grand church in Maastricht an elderly military man, in full regalia, marched to the altar, at certain points during the Mass and bowed to the priest. He looked a bit like a papal Swiss guard but may have been a Dutch equivalent. He was carrying a trident, silver and polished. I wondered if it was tradition or whether the priest had asked him to do this. Perhaps he was an eccentric whom they tolerated.
You can judge how welcoming the priest and parishioners are quite easily. The best invite you for coffee after Mass. This happened in Austria where we were identified as ‘new’ (you are never a stranger) and whisked into a parish room for coffee and strudel. People asked us about ourselves and told us what to see and where to go. This is what community is all about. In a welcoming parish the priest doesn’t hot-foot it out at the end. He waits outside church and shakes your hand. He might recognise that you are ‘not from these parts’ and engage you in conversation. This happened in Tampa, Florida where the priest shared my maiden name and we decided we might be long-lost cousins!
In an unfriendly community they miss out the exchange of peace – the point in the Mass when you shake hands. They didn’t do this last week in Holland, nor when I went to a rural church in western Ireland. I was told that they ‘couldn’t do this because people don’t get on’. How strange. The Mass was in Irish and this was one of the few times when I couldn’t follow the structure. The offertory was in the middle of the consecration. Then again it’s in Ireland some stand outside church and count this as fulfilling their obligation. They have the fastest Masses, 25 minutes including a homily.
In Santiago, on Easter Sunday, accompanied by friends with whom we were doing a 100 kilometre pilgrimage we arrived for Mass in our walking gear. The church was old, as were the congregation. One elderly man had multiple responsibilities: he was the altar server, money collector, candle lighter, church opener and closer. We spotted him first as he was climbing the bell-tower where he sounded several bells using a large hammer. It sounded sublime. You wonder what they did when he was absent. The sanctuary of this church was shaped as a giant shell, the pilgrims’ sacred symbol so we did feel acknowledged although no-one spoke to us.
It’s in Spain where the statues are often grotesquely ornate. Statues of Mary are dressed in velvet and embroidered silks and satins. She is often depicted with tears running down her face. If you are feeling fragile yourself this can be comforting; as if she’s sympathising with your plight.
Before I get to Mass I always wonder about the make-up of the congregation. Will they look affluent or poor? In Hong Kong they seemed to be mainly Philippino and other ethnic workers. I was told that Sunday would be their only day off. It was similar in Notting Hill where I imagined I might see celebrities. (It’s hard not to day-dream sometimes). In Rio it was a mixture too. These were some of the most colourful and exuberant celebrations, as you might imagine. And there were lots of young people, great to see.
The most crowded church was in Krakow, home of the late Pope, John Paul 11. The place was filled to overflowing and there were many young nuns and priests. It was hardest on the knees as we knelt most of the time. And the priest frowned when we took communion in our hands. Most of them are traditionalists and take it on the tongue
The most colourful were churches in India where people wore their ‘Sunday best’. It was a sea of turquoise and fuschia, broken up only by the dazzling white shirts of the men. Poor they might be but under-dressed and disrespectful they aren’t. The men and women sat on opposite sides of the church. (The same happened in the Basque country). As I came out of church I bumped into a cow at the back door.
The best thing about Mass is the strong sense of community. You know that you are bound together with people who share the same 2000 year beliefs. Whatever your culture, language and traditions you join together to celebrate what is good and true – even if you forget during the week.