Monday, April 25, 2011


Every now and then I like to read some of the new reviews of Masses and services given by mystery worshippers. I should let you know that these mystery worshippers come from all faiths. We Catholics aren't alone on this site. Most of the reviews I read are either positive, or at least pretty positive, or at least in the "par for the course" motif (the case of most Catholic Mass reviews).

This morning, I read this one! And although you can easily click the words "this one" in my last sentence to read the full review, I can't help but to offer these snippets that may seem typical in a number of parishes. This review was on a Palm Sunday Mass (yes, this year) in a Catholic church. (Snippets from the page are in italics. The stuff in normal print is me being my snarky self.

How full was the building?
Simply heaving with humanity, and it's not exactly a small church! We arrived 10 minutes early and it was a struggle to squeeze into a pew, We were packed in the pew like the subway at rush hour. Lucky to get seats, though, as it was standing room only shortly after we arrived. I counted 60 or so in the side aisles, back of the church and vestibule. I would estimate the total attendance was above 400, a feat made even more impressive given this was the third mass of the day.

Now, since I've never attended Mass anywhere in Brooklyn, NY, I can't really judge whether this is the regular attendance every week, or if it's just the APEX Catholic coming out to do what they do best, that is, act like APEX Catholics. And if they're meeting family or friends there for the first time in five years, they won't keep their holes shut for five seconds, let alone five minutes!

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A warm and hearty hello it wasn’t. There was a lady distributing giant handfuls of palm fronds out of a plastic bucket of water to the eager hoards gathered at the entrance to the nave. She handed my friend a bundle. Then, when she saw me, she stopped and looked incredulously at me and said, "Really?" That, in Brooklynese, is an understatement for "You've gotta be kidding!" I answered back with my own "Really" and she handed some over, punctuated with an eye roll. Later, I realized that the custom was to give out one helping of palms per family, and she must have thought that my friend and I were being a very greedy couple.

"Really?" I should have used that on the "extraordinary" minister of Holy Communion that once told me that she could only give Jesus in the hand. In this case, the person saying "Really?" was of the greeter variety (or in some parishes, the new term is "hospitality minister" - everyone's a "minister" now - sheesh!).

Was your pew comfortable?
It would have been more comfortable with perhaps two fewer people in it, but, as far as wooden pews with a kneeler go, it was fine.


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Bustling, loud and crowded. It was well nigh impossible to get into a pious mood beforehand, although a few valiant souls tried. As with any crowd trying to squeeze into a space all at once, it had crying babies, people talking, folks jostling for position, and a number of people complaining about the logjam at the center aisle where the palms were being distributed. (I'm not sure, but I'm willing to bet that the crowds welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem didn't fight over who would get to wave the palm branches.) There were a few people kneeling at prayer, and I saw one lady interrupted mid Hail Mary, having to stop and stand to let more people into the pew. With a crowd this big, a few ushers would have been useful. Communion was a total free-for-all.

I won't even DARE to ask on that last sentence. My guess: it was either "Back off! It's MY Jesus!" or "Get out of my way so I can receive and get the hell out of here!"

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

Well, that's good, at least! But now, here's the liturgy that these people packed in like sardines to witness...

What musical instruments were played?
A small pipe organ. There was also a choir and a soprano soloist who was decidedly past her Use By date.

Anything like the geriatric glee club I once had to endure at a local parish one fine Divine Mercy Sunday?

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Middle-of-the-road novus ordo, which I find neither happy clappy or stiff upper anything. The whole palm liturgy was really confusing for me. The palms had apparently been blessed at an earlier service, as the priest merely read the first lesson at the door, then walked forward asperging left and right while we sang the processional hymn – or rather, some of us did, and I think it was a hymn (I'll have more to say about the music in a moment). At the mass itself, there was no incense and no chanting, nothing really solemn at all. Not even the bell at communion, which I found a little sad. It was all very unsophisticated, bland, a little sterile, and nothing whatsoever to plug it into the past. Some of the music was on the happy clappy side, at least I think it was. Sometimes it was difficult to tell exactly what was being played. There was what I'm guessing to be a five-year-old boy sitting several rows ahead of me just bored out of his gourd and letting everyone around him know it, but he provided me with a memorable impression that I'll save for the end.

LOL - I THINK it was a hymn. (Not so sure, eh?) And what's this "asperging left and right"? Liturgical prance?

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Catholics don't sing, do they? And who can blame them when what is on offer is truly, truly ear-splittingly bad. Something was sung that sounded like the K-mart jingle circa 1980. Another number, which I thought was going to be a doo-wop song, turned out to be a 1970s tuneless abomination. The choir and organist only made matters worse. The organist must have been a beginner, as it wasn't a case of a few misplaced notes, but rather whole misplaced passages! During the offertory, one half of the choir seemed to begin another hymn in a different key and tempo, while the other half continued on with what they had been singing. And I don't think it was meant to be contrapuntal. The old soprano punctuated everything with random impromptu solos. Is it any wonder that the congregation took the choir coming on as their cue to talk to one another? Everyone that I could see, save for one, completely disengaged when the singing started.

WOW! Very much like the geriatric glee club I linked a couple of questions ago!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The only time the bored five-year-old was still was when the choir was singing. I was surprised at how attentively he listened, frowning and making faces throughout, but really listening. During one particularly bad moment where the choir managed to sing off-key in tandem with a string of wrong notes, he reacted by screwing his face into the worst mug, and it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. From the mouths of babes, so to speak.

This five-year-old could just be a future "mystery worshipper".

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Perhaps if stricken deaf.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. This was perhaps the perfect place to hear the Passion read, since so much is about "the crowd," the nature of bodies and community.

I don't know if this last remark was sarcasm or a good point made "tongue in cheek", but this seems like a very angry place. Of course, I'd be angry too if I had to endure this.


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