After attending a 3-day silent retreat in Westminster Abbey in Mission B.C., today I participated in my first ever Catholic mass. I would say I am very impressed with the liturgy and the overall atmosphere of worship. Here are a few things I observed:
- Great Reverence – I noticed the first thing Catholic worshipers would do when they come in is to dip their right hand into the font and make a sign of the cross, reminding themselves of their baptism as entry into the Church. Then they would go down on one knee before they enter their pews, acknowledging the Lord’s presence before they sit down. The reverence is also shown by people wearing their Sunday best. I thought it’s very comical seeing little boys wearing suits and shoes bigger than them.
- Unhurried Pace – The whole mass was very much unhurried. Between each section, there would be long but comfortable pauses, and everybody sat in silence, waiting reverently for the next motion. Such a calm pace filled me with both tranquility and holy anticipation throughout the service. Every move of the priests, the acolytes, or the choir members were so smooth as if it was a choreographed dance. The most important thing is that they don’t distract you. They serenely yet swiftly perform their tasks and you feel that you can ignore them and focus on worshipping God.
- Subtle Music – The choir stood in a circle, facing each other, back in the far end of the church. Their presence was very subtle, for I only heard their voices, and did not pay much attention to their physical appearance. They truly functioned as a subtle worship-assisting instrument instead creating of a showy performance. Not to mention the Gregorian chants were very soothing to the ears.
- “God” Speakers – I noticed the speakers were mounted on the ceiling, in the center-most and highest point of the dome. When the preacher preached, the echoes filling the space sounded like as if God was speaking gently from heaven. I never thought by positioning the speakers that way can increase my reverence for the preacher’s message as he is speaking the Word on behalf of God.
- Use of Smell – Although the incense reminded me of the Buddhist temples I went with my family when I was young, it triggered inside of me a sense of tranquility and peacefulness, that this space is sacred and a holy presence is among us.
- Use of Color – The colored glass has gradients of red and orange, purple and blue, stimulating much of my visual senses. I don’t know a better way to put it, but I felt like I walked into an elegant fashion boutique (in a good sense), with that sense of beauty and aesthetic touch to it.
- Lack of Comfortableness – The chairs were not cushioned. There were no kneeling pads. When it came to the intercession, people would kneel on the hard cold floor for more than fifteen minutes. I knelt too, but amazingly when you are in such a state of reverence, you don’t feel painful at all.
- Multi-ethnicity – Before entering the mass, I expected to see only middle/old-age white people. Surprisingly, the mixture of ethnicity is far more diverse then you would expect in other protestant churches. Two of the acolytes were Chinese, one is probably Hispanic, and the preacher is actually an Indian guy! I also noticed the Catholic Church embraced all sorts of people. There were the usual nicely dressed middle-upper class, yet there were also the not-so-well-dressed folks, the crippled, and the poor. Since the worship experience was very much theo-centric, it seems like it didn’t matter much who you are. As long as you identify yourself as a Catholic, you may come towards the Lord’s table to receive communion. I realized my assumption about the Catholic Church demographic is very far from reality.
- Corporateness – My jaws dropped when I saw three middle-aged persons holding hands and gently lifted them up when they said the Lord’s prayer together. This gesture fully reflects the “us” aspect of the Lord’s prayer – “Give us today our daily bread… forgive us… lead us… deliver us…” Who says that the Catholics do not know what they are believing? I think these practicing Catholics are much more theological than many of our Protestant brothers and sisters.
Overall, it was an eye-opening experience. Their use of smell, sight, sound, space, movement… all contributed to a heightened worship experience that filled all my senses with awe and reverence. I think there is indeed a lot that we Protestants can appreciate and learn from the Catholic liturgical tradition. I believe it is my calling is to enliven the Anglican liturgical tradition more fully while remaining Evangelical in faith. There is indeed a need to recover some of the precious liturgical wisdom passed down through the ages and renew our worshiping experiences to be more “theologically-holistic” and “sensually-whollistic”.
Hmm, am I leaning towards to becoming an Anglo-Catholic? =)