Thursday, 15 September 2011

A Visit to Mass

Well then, I've been to Mass. Fireworks didn't exactly go off, but it was a hugely positive experience and I learned a lot about the Catholic Church (although nowhere NEAR as much as I have learned by reading the blogs of Catholic moms!!!!)

As I explained to someone I knew at the Mass, although I'm of the Anglican denomination, my reasons for attending were fully respectful, and although unable to receive the Eucharist there, I also went to worship. I have learned a lot during the past two years, through theological study and blog posts, that has opened up the meaning of being Catholic to me on many levels. Nevertheless, I think I amazed myself with how Anglo-Catholic my leanings perhaps are, and how attendance at Mass was not particularly alien, although a lot less familiar than the setting to which I am used..

I've divided my thinking into several areas to ponder on this. I don't mean for them to be a review, or a criticism, just a summing-up. It's the same type of thinking I do when I attend services at my own church, or different Anglican churches (and which shouldn't interfere with my experience of meeting with Jesus, as I wrote here.)

The Setting

Outwardly the church was unassuming, but inside it was both welcoming and awe-inspiring, simple yet grandiose, large and long yet homey. The wonderful stained-glass window of Jesus Christ, the incense, the layout of the pews and the ringing of the bell brought into being a reminder how in a service, everything should conspire to make everything the best for God. I didn't really understand what all the parts of the church were for (people went into an alcove and deposited money upon arrival, and I couldn't tell you where the confessionals could be found) but this is usual on my visits to different churches and I would have only had to ask. 

The Liturgy

Now this is interesting, because I picked the week of all weeks when the NEW liturgy was launched here in the UK, so  no one else knew exactly what they were doing (including the priest) even though I understand the changes are minor. A LOT of what was said was extremely familiar from the Holy Communion service I am used to; other parts, including the Hail Mary (which was an emotional thing for me to say in a church with other people for the first time) were completely new to me. I can't exactly say what differs because the service was on a card which they wouldn't allow us to take home due to them being new, needed and necessary. Something to ponder on further in the future.

The Homily

Now, this is where I become unstuck. In the Anglican church, we have a ten-minute sermon related to a Bible reading (or two) from the lectionary. I often find it one of the most uplifting and spirit-filled parts of the service if the right person is preaching. Now I don't know if it is because it was Saturday, or because of the launch weekend, but instead of this we had as the Homily a letter from a local Bishop telling us about the new liturgy and the request to focus on Fridays as a type of fasting day. I was completely confused. Do some churches omit a homily about the Word, or was it really a special case? 

The Music.

I have to say, the organ was played beautifully. I'm not sure the congregation knew the hymns though. (This happens at our church too.) I didn't know all of them. But (and it made me realise just how uneducated I remain about Catholicism) I was astounded to realise that the hymnbook used - I think it was this one, anyhow - didn't just contain Catholic hymns (although it contained proportionately more Catholic hymns than Mission Praise, which we use; including one by a nun, which we sand)!!! OK, call me stupid. I know our Catholic church participates quite heavily in our Churches Together initiative. But, that Catholics sing the same recent hymns as we do, that worship Christ but were written by non-Catholics? That kind of blew me away. (But again - does this happen at every church? Or are some more conservative/liberal than others about this. I am definitely coming away with more questions than answers here!)

The Priest

OK, this is an odd one. For two reasons. The first is, the priest is someone I tried to contact and talk with when I was pregnant with ThirdSister and wanted an open-to-life opinion about delivery options following two previous caesareans. (At an appointment with an assistant obstretic consultant I had been advised to have a third and final caesarean plus sterilisation carried out, and I was seeking help from various sources to deal with this. As it happened, once I got an appointment with my actual consultant, I was advised that they would support me whatever delivery option I preferred, and she wrote DO NOT STERILISE - MAY WANT MORE CHILDREN on my notes.) But the priest failed to get back to me about a date for a meeting (his assistant may not have passed on his message, I may have missed a return call, he's obviously a busy man, I don't know the reason.) But I would have felt a bit shy introducing myself. Secondly, I am used to clergy being inside the church when we filed out but as I walked down the steps outside and to the gate, the priest was there and sort of darted out at me and said 'Goodbye!' to which (me being me) I quickly replied 'bye' and legged it to my car....

The Congregation

I'm laughing at myself a little now. I'm not normally like this although I do like me and the girls to wear 'Sunday Best' to church. For Mass, I agonised over what to wear. I wanted to wear a dress. But not want that went over the knee or exposed too much cleavage. I don't have a crucifix, but I wanted to wear a cross, but I didn't want to look like I was trying to say 'I BELONG HERE' but neither, as someone training in ministry at a local church, did I feel I could go without wearing a cross. I expected everyone to be dressed up, and although there were many men of a certain age in suits, there were people dressed casually too. The church was not even a quarter-filled, possibly due to the timing of the service, and there were elderly people, middle-aged people, a few families, and even a couple of small children. I was pleasantly surprised by the broad spectrum of people really. Someone I know from the girls' playgroup spotted me and came over and was very welcoming. No one else tried to engage me in conversation but folk seemed happy to accept me there.

Attitude Towards Children

I wondered how different things would have been with my children in tow, especially my toddler, who enjoys wandering around churches. There was a family of four children with their mother, including an under-5, and they seemed very well behaved! There was also the woman I mentioned who I know with her son, who is 7; they were seated with a family with a pre-schooler and their pew was the noisiest one in church. There was lots of shushing and I think at one stage the littlest boy was taken out. But there didn't seem to be any judgemental looks like you sometimes get. I wondered if people's tolerance was higher because the 7 year old has Down's Syndrome and in my experience churches people tend to be give a bit more leeway about the behaviour of adults and children with special needs (see Kathleen Basi's post A Kerfuffle about Doughnuts for someone's direct experience of this). But overall, people just carried on participating in the liturgy. There was no special provision for children; families were just expected to do what everyone else does. But I did not find this off-putting - in fact the opposite. (I think I would struggle to persuade my kids otherwise mind you!)

The Eucharist

The elephant in the room! I read a post today by someone hoping to convert to Catholicism, who cried because she could not yet receive Mass. My experience wasn't quite the same - this was Saturday night and I knew I would be receiving the Eucharist at the 10am service at my own church the next morning. At my church, one is expected to be confirmed as a member of the Church of England before taking communion, so I was happy to adhere to rules. My acquaintance did encourage me to take a blessing - she showed something I should do with my arms for this to happen - but again, as I knew I would receive that same Sabbath, I stayed in my seat (and actually so did other people in my pew.) And it did feel strange - but like I used to before I was admitted for bread and wine within my church. Not unfair, but like I was missing out. The one thing that struck me was the speed at which bread and wine was dispensed - two quick lines filed down and back to their seats before I knew it. This is in contrast to our church where people stand or kneel at the altar rail and the priest walks around to administer to them - I have experienced this at Ordination services at Southwell Minster where a very large congregation needs to be given the Eucharist. I wonder whether it is the same or different at other Catholic churches?

The time of day

Because I wished to receive Holy Communion at our usual church service the next day, I chose to attend the Saturday service. This was an education in itself - finding out that what is called 'Vigil Mass' actually isn't, but that it is instead the first church service of the Sabbath (which starts at sundown; how amazing it is that this tradition has been retained over the centuries.) Now I understand why my sister in law's parents go to church on a Saturday night! And actually, it does set a person up for a Sunday. It has given me an impetus to start my Sabbath prayers at sundown; to start preparing for God tomorrow, today.

The kneeling! 

This sticks with me, as I had sprained my ankle and getting up and down to kneel was tricky but I didn't want to stick out like a sore thumb as someone who wasn't kneeling! But I was hard pressed to work out where to put my feet when I was just sitting - were they meant to be over the kneeling rail, or behind it? I still haven't worked this one out. I suspect - as with most of my questions - there is no correct answer.


This isn't everything. I am only plucking out the bits I remembered, or that stand out, and it's impossible to put a religious experience into words, anyway. Apart from the Mass, though, I have to say I did not feel out of place, and in some aspects, I felt it was an amazing way to worship. I did not feel included as a Catholic, but I felt included as a Christian. I could completely see where Anglicanism has diverged and differed from what I have heard termed 'the one true church', and while I am confirmed as a member of the Church of England, the areas where I have introduced elements of aspects of Catholicism into my life  have enriched my spirituality and understanding of Christianity. And now I understand how the lives of the women who have strengthened my relationship with God and my family through their blogging are strengthened by their attendance at Mass.

[And I have been trying to write this post for a couple of weeks now!....every time I settle down to it there is some or other interruption from one of our daughters....But really, they aren't the interruption, they ARE the life, and blogging is merely the punctuation where I get to stop and think :-) It might explain why the post remains disjointed and incoherent in places though!]

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