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The website "Ship of Fools" has a feature called "Mystery Worshipper" wherein people volunteer to visit churches of various denominations, and Catholic Churches pp churches where they're unknown -- and take notes about the services, filling out a questionnaire set up by "Ship of Fools."  Here are what a few mystery worshippers experienced at some places of interest to us Fisheaters (the subject of the homily given by the Holy Father in the first review is great!):
 

St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City  


Mystery Worshipper: Pew Hymnal.
 
The church: St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City.
 
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
 
The building: St Peter’s Basilica is the largest church in the world. Its architects and artisans read like a Who’s Who of the art world: Michelangelo, Bramante, Raphael, Maderno, etc. The church was begun in 1506 as a replacement for the crumbling 4th century Constantine basilica built over the traditional burial spot of St Peter, and was more or less completed by 1626. When you walk into the nave, your sense of size is skewed. It is difficult to understand how large everything is. Some sense of perspective is gained when you look at the lettering at the base of the dome, which reads: "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam meam" etc. (Matthew 16:18 – "Thou are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church"). The letters are no less than six feet high. Among the many priceless artworks are Michelangelo’s Pieta, in a side chapel and protected by bulletproof glass. Aside from the statuary, almost all the artworks are mosaics; for this reason, visitors are allowed to use flash photography. Near the crossing on the right side is displayed the body of Pope John XXIII, in an almost perfect state of preservation 45 years after his death. Some call it a miracle, although Signore Gennaro Goglia, the pope's embalmer, credits it to the composition of the embalming fluid used, plus a judicious application of wax. Be that as it may, I was taken aback by how short the pontiff looks (John XXIII was 5'6" tall in life). If you visit St Peter’s, be sure to go down into the crypt, where you can see the entrance to St Peter’s tomb and the tombs of many other popes, including John Paul II.
 
The church: St Peter's is the Pope's cathedral when he exercises his role as Pope (although as Bishop of Rome his seat is at St John Lateran). I don’t think there is a regular parish community, although I suspect that people who live and work in the Vatican and the Vatican area attend mass here regularly. The Basilica is open every day to visitors, and masses and devotions are scheduled at all hours.
 
The neighbourhood: The Vatican is the smallest sovereign state in the world, a walled enclave surrounded by the city of Rome, approximately 110 acres in size and with a population of around 800. Created by treaty in 1929, Vatican City is strictly speaking not a vestige of what were once called the Papal States; it is, however, all that remains of the Pope's worldly dominions. The area between the Vatican and the Tiber is known as the Borgo, and is an area of quaint shops and fabulous eateries filled with people from all over the world. The major landmark, aside from St Peter’s, is the Castel Sant’Angelo, originally the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian but converted into a fortress by the popes in the 6th century. Opposite the castle is the bridge known as Ponte Sant’Angelo, built by Hadrian in AD 136. It collapsed in 1450 and was subsequently rebuilt using parts of the ancient bridge.
 
The cast: His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, assisted by about 30 to 40 cardinals and approximately 225 bishops, all of whom were already in Rome for the latest synod on sacred scripture.
 
The date & time: Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of the Servant of God Pope Pius XII, 9 October 2008, 12.00pm.
 
What was the name of the service?
Holy Mass.

How full was the building?
It was very difficult to estimate the total number of people present. Admission was by ticket. The central nave from the altar to the great doors was full. As well, there were many people in the left side aisle without tickets who were let into the Basilica. A conservative guess would be about 10,000 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We had to go through an airport-like security check before entering. Once inside, there were ushers directing ticket holders to the seating area in the nave.

Was your pew comfortable?
The chair was a standard plastic chair which allowed several breaks from standing for the duration of the two hour mass.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The pre-service was quiet, considering the large number of people present. About 20 minutes before mass actually started, the organist played Bach’s chorale prelude on O Sacred Head, using a cornet stop for the melody in the right hand. The choir sang several motets which sounded like they were composed by Domenico Bartolucci, director of the choir of the Sistine Chapel from 1956 to 1997. Considering the fact that the choir and organ were about three city blocks away from the nave, it sounded relatively clear – plus it was "gently" miked.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spirtus Sancti. Pax vobiscum. Spoken by Pope Benedict.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
An elaborately decorated booklet containing all the prayers and music. The Gregorian chants were written in four line chant notation, which purists consider easier to read than the modern five line notation. The mass was in Latin with the Italian translation printed beside it. The intercessions included prayers in seven different languages.

What musical instruments were played?
The Basilica's grand pipe organ, built in 1954 by the Tamburini firm and refurbished in 1962. The pipes occupy two identical cases, with a four-manual console sitting in front of the north case. A smaller portable console can be connected via coaxial outlets at various points around the Basilica.

Did anything distract you?
The biggest distraction was the behaviour of many people who stood on their chairs as the Pope and procession entered and left. Many people were elbowing each other in order to get "their" picture of the Pope. They behaved like paparazzi. One Italian lady in front of me tried to get people to sit down without any success. At length she cried out "Shame!" in English but with a heavy Italian accent.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was a formal Catholic high mass with incense and all the rest. The booklet encouraged the assembly to join in the sung parts with the choir. The Pope actually sat off to the side for the scripture readings, homily and post communion prayers, instead of in the front of the altar. A deacon chanted the gospel in Latin.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
20 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Pope Benedict is a good speaker and can preach in as many as eight languages. However, he reads all his texts and never raises his voice or engages in emotive hand waving. He remained seated in his chair. The only annoying thing is that periodically he coughed right into the microphone. (I heard him speak in 2006 as well and he had the same cough then.)

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
His Holiness referred to the day's reading from the Book of Sirach (also called Ecclesiasticus, one of the Apocrypha), saying that those who intend to follow the Lord must be prepared to face trials and suffering. He traced the life of Pius XII and pointed out that in contrast to the criticism of some who say that Pius ignored the plight of the Jews during the Holocaust, he in fact secretly aided many Jews and championed the cause of persecuted people through many charitable works. Pope Benedict even quoted Golda Meir’s praise of Pius XII while she was Israel’s foreign minister. He then mentioned several of Pius' many encyclicals and reminded us that it was Pius who in 1950 pronounced the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Holy Father's thought-provoking homily on the war years and Pius XII. I was wondering what I would have done in his place. Would I have spoken out more emphatically or worked behind the scenes? Also, the music with the glorious amount of reverb in such a large space was heavenly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As mentioned above, the worst thing was the behavior of people standing on chairs, jockeying for position to take a picture and see the Pope. Not a very dignified start and end to the mass. It looked like a free-for-all!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance of any fellowship or coffee after mass; there were simply too many people. My friends and I went for a cappuccino and a bowl of risotto at the Rome bus terminal cafeteria right beside St Peter’s Square. Not your typical cafeteria food.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
As mentioned above, nothing was served; there was no place to serve anything.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – If I lived in the area, I would attend faithfully.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did. The extra special feature of this mass was the fact that there were people from every corner of the globe attending, all praying together.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The Pope's homily and the heavenly choir.
 
 





St. Mark's Basilica, Venice
 

Mystery Worshipper: Misericord.
 

The church:
St Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy.
 
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Patriarchate of Venice. The Patriarch of Venice, traditionally a cardinal, is one of the few prelates in the Western church to hold that title, which is purely honorary.
 
The building:
San Marco, the focal point of Venice, was built in AD828 to receive the remains of the evangelist St Mark. The recounting of how his relics were "acquired" from Constantinople and presented to the doge in Venice is commemorated in fabulous mosaics in the west portals of the great church. The basilica was rebuilt after a 10th century fire, and it was enlarged, decorated and elaborated upon through the 13th century. The amount of gold mosaic, marble, porphyry, carved decoration and sculptures in gothic and byzantine styles creates an effect that is beyond exuberant, full of life and spirit and exoticism. You cannot look upon this building for the first time without an open jaw followed by a smile.
 
The church:
With Notre Dame, Westminster Abbey and St Peter's, San Marco probably receives the greatest crush of tourists of any place in the western world. As at those places, which also maintain a schedule of worship, the hordes of visitors must be diverted to the rear and sides of the interior, hushed, and prohibited from taking photos during mass. The basilica is officially a martyrium, the resting place of a martyred saint. It wasn't elevated to be the cathedral church until 1807, being reserved for veneration of the relics and the use of the doge (the elected ruler of the Republic of Venice).
 
The neighbourhood:
The basilica, along with the campanile and doge's palace, comprise the Piazza San Marco, which Napoleon called "the finest drawing room in Europe." It is one of the most recognisable places on earth. The backdrop for countless movies, travelogues and posters, the spot is one of vast beauty and has an intense sense of excitement and glamour. The quay looking out from the doge's palace at the end of the Grand Canal is where the throngs arrive and depart in the vaporetto boats. The piazza offers a number of competing ristoranti with outdoor tables and live café music. Tour groups criss-cross the space during all daylight hours. Pigeons, though less a menace than they used to be since their feeding was prohibited, are still a source of free entertainment for children and their parental paparazzi.
 
The cast:
Not listed, but there were three priests concelebrating, assisted by two acolytes (rather mature men) and one reader who was a religious sister.
 
The date & time:
Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, 19 October 2008, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?

La Santa Messa con il Popolo di Dio (Holy Mass of the People of God).

How full was the building?
There were about 500 people on nice folding chairs without at all crowding the space. The chairs were mostly full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A sister guessed I wanted one of the multi-language printouts of the readings, and put one into my hands.

Was your pew comfortable?
The chairs were like rather dressy versions of a director's chair, with a cloth sling seat and back. Comfortable enough, but there was no provision for kneeling unless you were in the front row at the kneeling rail.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Some hushed murmurings of prayer and greeting, but overall quiet. The hum of tourists circulating around the rear and side aisles was starting to build after an earlier service had ended. It is my guess that the early service was mostly the local faithful, and the 10.30 was comprised much more of tourist-worshippers (like me).

What were the exact opening words of the service?
(In English!) "Good morning and welcome to the Basilica of San Marco." Announcements followed, describing the participation of the choir, the mass setting and anthem. The pieces mentioned were (perhaps) late classical or baroque settings for choir and organ, but not by composers I was familiar with, definitely not Gabrieli or Monteverdi, the most famous of the many musicians associated with San Marco.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. There was the sheet of the readings translated into English, Spanish, French and German. I saw someone near me with a little printed order of service, a copy of which I snagged at the end of the mass.

What musical instruments were played?
Pipe organ. The basilica's current instrument is by the Tamburini firm and is located in the decani side loft overlooking the presbytery. The adult mixed choir seemed to occupy the cantorum loft. I say "seemed" as I couldn't actually see them. I am hoping that the basilica still employs brass choirs for special occasions. The organ sounded pretty, but is probably an accompanimental (not a recital) instrument as is typical in large Italian churches. I was surprised at the drabness of the organ case given the opulence of the basilica's interior.

Did anything distract you?
The beauty and staggering sense of the ancient was my distraction. It is certainly the closest I will get to the experience of Christian worship in a place like Hagia Sophia. I wondered what the church would look like if they cleaned the centuries of candle wax, incense soot, and the breath and odor of almost a millennium of the faithful and curious off that figured marble, mosaic, gilding and bronze, and polished things up. Maybe that would be a mistake. Also the floor is a distraction, again both for its beauty and its age. The intricate tessellated and geometric pavements have heaved wildly where the supporting structure has settled. Where would differential settlement be more likely to show up than a 1200 year old structure built on pilings over a tidal lagoon? Much of the floor in the area where chairs were set up (and it turns out most of the route of tour groups) is covered with a sort of synthetic walk-off mat. Most necessary I'm sure.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Worship was novus ordo, dignified and pretty straightforward, but with no entrance procession (how great that could have been!) or recessional. Mass was, however, celebrated at the high altar. There was incense – the gospel book was censed, as were the altar, ministers and congregation at the offertory. The gospel was proclaimed from a portable lectern, not the pulpit. Sanctus bells were jangled. We received communion under the species of bread only, and outside the rood screen. I think I was struck most by how typical the mass was. Although I certainly couldn’t catch the nuances of the spoken Italian, there was clearly no attempt to be creative or to embellish worship, no expectation that people could be induced to sing or participate, no clue that this church is unique or the mass was very different from one you would attend in a working class neighbourhood. The choir and their music seemed remote and only minimally engaged. Given the age and grandeur of the space I expected more. I was disappointed not to be able to see the choir.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The homilist spoke in Italian; the only English I heard were the opening words of the service. Again, he spoke from the portable lectern, not the pulpit. Not being able really to follow, I can give him only a middling grade. His style was fairly stiff, and not particularly informal or folksy, but direct and pastoral. He probably has to preach to 500 new faces every week at this particular service.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He preached on Mark 12:13-17 ("Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's") but I really couldn't follow very well. I'm sure it was solid doctrinally. And there was no reaction from the assembly, good or negative.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Just being in San Marco with the devotion, history, holiness and great beauty it embodies, is pretty close to heaven for this worshipper.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The (no doubt) paid choir wasn't that impressive. The mass setting was okay, but the psalm verses were ragged and intonation not so good. The balance was soprano heavy. There were no hymns printed, nor was anything sung by the congregation. Even with so transient a group, something could be done. Only the familiar Pater Noster drew out any congregational participation – no music was provided, but the chant setting is so familiar that everyone was able to join in.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

Between the tour groups and the noon mass attendees, you must move along. I came back another day on such a tour. At that time I noticed that the lower marble panels of the gothic rood screen (which were open during the mass, thus allowing some view of the celebrant in front of the gold altarpiece) had been reinstalled, giving a more closed effect to the sanctuary.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None. I had a panini and a nice glass of wine in one of those overpriced cafés in the piazza. Delicious.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – Probably not, but I sure was delighted to visit. A thing about Venetians is that they are polite and pleasant, and this even as their city is absolutely overrun with tourists all year round. I’m not sure how many of us would have their patience.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Most definitely.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
I will remember how ancient the church feels, how richly it is decorated, all at least 700 years ago, and how it is unlike anything else in the West, at least unlike anywhere else I have visited. And what other church's website lists alternate access points during high tides?
 



 
Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem