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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Music for the Masses

When Mike and I travel, we make it a point to find a Catholic Church wherever in the world we are and schedule Mass into our itinerary during our vacation.  'Cause, you know, we're Catholic.

As a couple, we've been to mass in France, England, Japan and Iceland so far.  We love seeing the little differences in each country - like how the Japanese bow to one another during the Sign of Peace, or how the French and Icelandic don't go up for Communion in any orderly fashion. Or how nowhere else but in the USA do people hold hands during the Lord's Prayer and how the Confiteor was said at every Mass we went to overseas, but almost never heard at any of the Masses we went to in the USA.  In our traveling around the US, it's kind of surprising how varied the settings can be from parish to parish. Unexpectedly, there have been times where we're more lost during a Mass in English than we were following along with a Mass in a foreign country.

It's the same overall though, so there's a comfortable familiarity in the Mass that makes you feel at home even when you're thousands of miles away from it.

In Japan, only about 0.5% of the population is Christian (which, from an American perspective, makes it incredible to think that Taro Aso, a  Catholic, was elected Prime Minister in '08. Could you imagine Americans voting for a president who practiced a religion that only comprised 0.5% of the American population? It would be like Americans electing a Hindi president... oh the hissey fits so many Americans would have if a real life non-Christian was in a position of power...but that's a blog for another time) so there aren't any massive cathedrals like you would see in Europe, but on our last trip there, we managed to find a tiny church in Suita that we stopped into for Mass on a Sunday.

The Catholic church in Suita, Japan

As soon as we walked in, the parishioners rushed to get us chairs (because all the pews were already filled), and booklets with both the Japanese words written out in Romaji and the English translations on the adjacent page. Obviously they could tell we were "gaijin" as we were the only non-Asians in the vicinity. After the Mass a few of the parishioners came up to us and wanted to tell us about their regular Mass hours and invite us back to the English service the following week, but I had to explain that we were just tourists making a stop for Mass before our 1 o'clock beer tour of the Asahi Brewery down the street.

Which was awesome.

Even if we were hungover from the previous night at karaoke.

Good times.  Yay Asahi!   Moving on.

Iceland is similar to Japan in that they both have, in their history, specific measures taken by the ruling forces to oust the Catholic Church from the country with relative success. In the mid-1800's there were only about 9 Catholics left in all of Iceland... and two of them were from France. Now, the country has a total population of about 300,000, and of that, about 8,000 consider themselves Catholic (the national church of Iceland is Evangelical Lutheran Church of Iceland.)

The Catholic church we attended in Reykjavik, Iceland.

There are 5 Catholic churches in Iceland and the nearest one to us while we were on the Eastern coast with my family was about a 5 hour drive away. We were able to attend a Sunday mass in Reykjavik when we got back to the West coast and while it was mostly filled with other tourists, it was a lovely service cantored by the parish priests who had lovely clear voices. The meditation after Communion was done in complete silence.  I had never thought that the "meditation music" after Communion was a distraction until I tried meditating in total silence. Everything felt uncomplicated and for that brief moment I understood how someone could be drawn to a cloistered monastic life. 

In France, where about 50% of the population is Catholic (although somewhere between 13-50% of those counted French "Catholics" say they don't believe in God... so... I don't know how that works) we found an incredible cathedral on what seemed like every corner. We went to an early morning Sunday mass at Notre Dame before the sun came up. It was my first time at Notre Dame, but if you're Catholic, I think that's the way to see it.

Notre Dame - from the riverside.

The Mass was (obviously) in French and seemed a little more formal than we were used to back home but it felt significant even if there were only about 30 local parishioners there for the morning service - mostly elderly Parisians who had walked from their nearby apartments and who promptly left after the service. By the time we got out, the sun had come up and the tourists and peddlers were starting their daily frenzy outside and we were on our way out with an experience at the cathedral that all the other tourists missed.

When Mike and I got to London, we had originally intended to go to an early morning Mass near our hotel, but we accidentally slept in so we decided to do a little sight seeing and eventually wander over to the Westminster Cathedral (the Catholic one. Not to be confused with Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's which are both Anglican) for their noon service.

The front of Westminster Cathedral 
nestled between two very modern office type buildings.

And it was - without a doubt - THE most incredible Mass experience I've ever had in my life. 

The cathedral was completely filled with people - locals and tourists alike.  We didn't realize it when we walked in, but the noon service was a "Solemn Mass" sung by the choir.  Having been choir nerds, we were looking forward to what a big metropolitan church choir would bring to the service, but we had never been to a Solemn Mass before, so we were not sure what else we should expect.  Mike and I had been to a "Sung Mass" near our home (again, the result of us sleeping in too late) and while that wasn't a bad Mass experience, it was stiff and we often lost our place in the service so we never went back.

The solemn Mass at the Westminster Cathedral was a completely different beast.  Everything seemed important, worthy of reverence, and I remember feeling like I was completely unable to escape the massive mystery surrounding me. I wanted to open my eyes, my nose and my ears as wide as I possibly could to suck in every sensory experience and remember that feeling exactly.  It was impossible for my mind to wander like it normally does in a quiet comfortable space. I was blissfully captive.

The choir. O.M.G. Truly unbelievable.

I could listen to it all day... this video was actually taken a week before we were there.

I actually enjoy the music that is played at my parish. The morning choir is very good for a local church choir and they've sung some really beautiful pieces during the meditation.  The rest of the music is the standard, simple, sing-song stuff (albeit, sung by cantors with incredible voices) that's meant to be easy for the parishioners to sing along to. It's not the stuff that gets me into the God groove, but it's pleasant and I enjoy singing along. Anyway, it's not like I'd listen to those songs outside of church on CD.  But that's because I'm a snob. With really specific tastes.

Still, I would trade my well above average parish music ministry and maybe my left foot...AND I would offer to stand in the back for all eternity... in 4 inch stiletto pumps... for a weekly Mass like the one we stumbled into at the Cathedral.  I'd request an adjustment to my work schedule to attend a daily Mass like that. Seriously - never before in my life had I experienced anything like it.

And the even more surprising part?  The Archbishop's homily. 

I had mentally prepared myself for the moment the homily would come up and ruin my euphoric experience with a boring ...or worse... an angry, you're-a-bad-Catholic-and-you're-going-to-hell-for-fill-in-the-blank type of sermon, like some of the ones I've sat through in the past. In my previous experiences at Mass in the USA, I had come to connect the dots that Latin in the Mass or in its music more often than not meant an uptight, grim, grumpy, dull, uninspired sermon. Snooze.

I waited for that awkward homily to kill my buzz.

And it never arrived. Maybe it helped that he had a British accent that just made him seem like an actor hired to play a slick priest, but the Archbishop (who was saying the Mass) stood at the lectern and talked passionately about tolerance, social justice and about the God of forgiveness that loves all his creation - Catholics and non-Catholics alike. He talked about the importance of living our lives as an example of that love despite the everyday fears that would cause us to act otherwise.  I remember thinking that his homily would fit right in with the homilies I'm inspired by at my home parish. 

Wait, what?  Did I just get an hour of incredible music, a full dose of incense, a touch of Latin,  the Eucharist AND an inspiring compassionate homily followed by a massive grand pipe organ recessional?

Shut up.  I totally did. And I don't know if I'll ever be the same again. 

I get that not everyone gets to live in the area that the Parish that the Westminster Cathedral covers, and I do love my parish, but I want to experience that - or something like it - again. Are there any churches/cathedrals on the West Coast (or uh, America?) that that do the same? I can find what I'm looking for scattered at a number of different parishes, but nothing that combines it all into one package quite the way Westminster did. A reverent, sleek Mass that's comfortable but not casual. Rich in ritual and progressive in thought. A smart, compassionate and well spoken preacher. An impeccable choir singing incredible sacred choral music that you only get to hear in concert halls and an organ with actual air going through real pipes.

Maybe the experience I had in London is the only one I'll ever have until I find my way back there?  The perfect storm of my ideal Mass.

I admit, I've had to listen to a bit of cheesy churchy-type music outside of a churchy setting lately (for reasons beyond my control) and I've reached a breaking point... so that's  probably why I've been longing for the non-cheese and reflecting on my favorite experiences inside a churchy setting.

Seriously. If anyone knows where I can experience a Mass that packs all the punches like that again in the US or abroad - let me know.   I'll want to add it to my travel list. My parish is awesome and often comes close, but there's no pipe organ (they've got an electric one... it's good, but it's just not the same.  A shame really because the organist is really really good.  I don't even know where there's a real pipe organ in use at a Catholic church around here.  Am I the only one that still likes that stuff? You can hear the wind moving through the pipes - it's awesome!  Vwhooooooom... that's the organ noise.)

In the meantime, anyone know anywhere I can hear a really awesome choir sing good  non-show-choir choral music?  As in not Glee? And free?  Ok, now I think I may be asking for too much.


  1. have you ever gone to one of the latin masses at St. Michael's Abby in Silverado Canyon? my brother went to high school there and our entire family has been friends with the nuns there (who are all filipino) for almost my whole life (Melrose still goes to mass there with her mom; we grew up together because our families were part of the same rosary group so we used to go to mass here together all the time). anyway, the masses sung by the Norbertine Fathers (remember Fr. Robert at MD? He came from this parish) is so melodic and beautiful and darn near perfect, and it's quiet during the time when you reflect and pray after receiving communion (which you must receive while kneeling at the altar - the altar boy even holds that gold "communion catcher" - sorry, don't know the official name - under your chin because you are not supposed to receive the host by hand). i dreaded mass there as a kid because you could NOT wear shorts, you HAD TO wear a veil, and it drove me and my cousin Aimee crazy - it's suuuuper traditional! i haven't been to mass there in a long time but i learned to appreciate it as i got older and would like to go again. if you get a chance, try to attend a benedictine mass as well the vespers mass. if they haven't changed the format (which i doubt they have), then you will probably enjoy it :)

  2. My mom used to take my brother & me down to Mass at St. Michael's when my brother went there for summer camp! I forgot about that! I haven't been to the benedictine or vespers mass though - at least I don't think I have. If they sing, maybe I'll have to go sit in on one. I'm kind of scared of the super traditional services because I feel like I'd do something wrong and everyone would notice and then shun me! And then Fr. Robert would get mad at me for not remembering one of those catchy posters he had up or something. There has to be a happy middle ground somewhere... hippie Vatican II loving priests and nuns that have a thing for incense and are addicted to the choral works of Palestrina? Hahah... maybe not.

  3. What always gets to me is a Samoan choir. It can bring me to tears. Speaking of cheesy... our church choir has this awful drum machine that just ruins the whole experience

  4. hahahah a drum machine!? like straight out of 1993? That's hilarious!

    And OoOOOooOO where might one hear a Samoan choir?


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