It’s very early on Tuesday morning and I can’t sleep, which is pretty annoying. Having laid awake and thought about all sorts of things that I could be doing, I’ve given in, got up, and decided to while away the time by updating the blog yet again.
I went to mass on Sunday – only the second time I’ve darkened the doors of a church since we arrived back in New Zealand last April:
Obviously, that isn’t the church I attended over the weekend – that’s St Peter’s in Rome, and the church I went to looked nothing like that (less mosaic work and more painted breeze block). Going to mass is a big part of being a Catholic. Of course, believing in God or having any kind of faith isn’t dependent upon being in a certain building at a particular time, but in my opinion Catholicism involves actually practising the faith, and going to mass on a regular basis is a big part of the equation (along with being charitable, not killing people, etc).
Like many people who were raised as Catholics, I stopped going to mass as soon as I left home and could no longer be forced along each weekend by my parents. Occasionally I’d go to the 11am mass at Old St Paul’s in Wellington, but this was largely because I loved the Latin choir (a choir singing the prayers in Latin, not a choir made up of swarthy Latino men). I then missed mass for a very long time (‘missed’ as in ‘didn’t go’, not ‘missed’ as in ‘wished I’d been there’), and didn’t even attend on holy days of obligation.
When Tristan and I started planning our wedding I realised that I had no intention of getting married anywhere but in a church, with a Catholic priest doing the honours. Given that he’s an aethist, this prospect didn’t thrill Tristan, and we had many ‘heated debates’ on the topic. His main concern was that he’d be expected to pretend that he believed in everything that was being said (the religious stuff, not the ’til death us do part stuff). Eventually I lured him along to meet the local priest and his fears were put to rest: the priest basically said, “we don’t really care what you believe, as long as you don’t stop your wife practising her faith, and as long as any children the two of you have are raised in the faith” (although Tristan still denies that the priest said that last part). Tristan’s mind was at ease and we attended the obligatory number of masses and proceeded to get married in an interdenominaional church,with a Catholic priest (Old St Paul’s in Wellington, for anybody preparing a dossier on my life).
This wedding day fixation on a Catholic wedding wasn’t enough to turn me into a regular church-goer, and – the occasional midnight mass aside – the pews were largely untroubled by my presence. However, a few years ago I was suddenly gripped with the urge to go to mass again. I started attending every weekend, and before you knew it I was a ‘proper’ Catholic again: doing the whole Easter celebration, giving up stuff for Lent, fasting on holy days, serving as a governor at the local Catholic primary school, volunteering as part of my parish’s St Vincent de Paul group – I tell you, I was a bit of a mid-30s Catholic poster child.
There were two main reasons that I stopped going to mass in New Zealand, back in the day: everybody stops doing things that the were compelled by their parents to do as soon as they can get away with it; and the Catholic church in NZ went a bit odd during my childhood and it put me off. I think they thought that the way to bolster their dwindling congregations was to go all modern and trendy – suddenly the traditional prayers were jazzed up and everything was simplified, like Catholic Mass for Dummies. And even as a kid I hated it. I’d always loved the language of the traditional prayers and I couldn’t understand why they needed to be changed. Even if you don’t agree with the words at all, who could fault they lyrical nature of them? Something like
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou amongst women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Actually, that’s a bad example: the Hail Mary survived unscathed. The Lord’s Prayer didn’t, though – every ‘thy’ was changed to ‘your’ and it all seemed so unnecessary. And I know how ridiculous it is to get annoyed about something so silly, but I think it was indicative of a loss of traditional that I (and many other Kiwi Catholics) really valued.
The modernisation of the Kiwi Catholic church in NZ didn’t seem to have the desired effect. When I was a kid my parish had a mass every weekday morning, and four Sunday masses. Now, it hardly seems to have any masses at all, and the ones that are celebrated (or, at least, the ones that I’ve attended) were scarcely recognisable: no veneration of the Sacrament, no kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer, lay people saying 99% of the mass, with the priest standing around like a spare part – really, it was very odd.
However, the Catholic church in England was splendid: the mass was exactly as I remembered it from my childhood. It was very easy to slip back into the swing of things. The prospect of returning to the crazy Kiwi Catholic church didn’t thrill me. A month or two after we got here, I went to mass in a nearby suburb. It was OK, but I didn’t really feel at home there. I was starting to think that the church and I were not going to become reacquainted any time soon, and I’d have to practise my faith in private like somebody living in Elizabethean times. But I knew that I was being faintly ridiculous, so I made it a new year’s resolution to go back to mass and see what happened.
Gentle readers, I’m so glad that I did. The mass I attended on Sunday was lovely: much more modern than the British version, but far less weird and gimmicky than my parents’ parish offers (seriously, I don’t know what’s going on down there). There was a good crowd in, and although half the prayers and responses seem to be different these days (and pointlessly different: when the priest says ‘peace be with you’, I’m used to responding with ‘and also with you’, but these guys say ‘and with your spirit’ – what the where why?), this parish helpfully projected everything on a couple of screens, enabling us all to participate. And we sang proper, old-school hymns, like ‘We Three Kings of Orient Are’ (one of my personal favourites).
It wasn’t all as I would choose, of course – for example, the Confessional Rite doesn’t seem to be recited by Kiwi Catholics these days. This is a shame, in my opinion – it’s one of my favourite parts of the mass and, indeed, what I consider to be one of the most valuable parts of the service: when else are you given an opportunity to formally consider your wrongdoings and vow not to repeat them? There may be many people going about their daily lives and regularly setting aside time for this kind of contemplation, I don’t know, but for me this part of the mass gave me a really good chance to examine my conscience and think about the impact that my choices had on those around me. In fact, the feeling of serenity that this process gave me was one of the most valuable things about practising my faith. But never mind – it’s a minor quibble (also, I’m complaining about the loss of language again, as the Confessional Rite is such a nice prayer).
But the good far outweighed the bad. The atmosphere in the church was one of real community, with people who clearly knew each other and saw each other every week. People were friendly and tolerant, particularly of parents with young children. One such parent and her toddler arrived in the same pew as me when the mass was underway, and in some parts of the world (such as my old church in England), this would have earned the mother a few disapprovingly raised eyebrows from older people sitting nearby. On Sunday, everybody sitting around us smiled, made a (quiet) fuss of the little girl, and generally did everything necessary to make the lady and her child feel welcome. And this mother made it easy to like and respect her by scooping up her kid the second it started wailing and fussing, and whisking it out of the church to calm down.
One really nice thing about the mass – and something I haven’t seen done elsewhere – was the way in which the young children received a blessing. In many Catholic churches the children too young to receive communion (a sacrament that one usually receives from the age of seven) are left to chill out in their pew while their parents and older siblings head up the aisle. At my church in England, the young kids would go up with their parents, but would have their arms crossed over their bodies to indicate that they were only to receive a blessing, and not the sacrament itself.
On Sunday, the young kids stayed behind during communion, but when the post-communion lull came around – traditionally a time for saying a prayer or singing the communion hymn – the youngsters made their own disorganised way up to the altar and visited the priest and the deacon, each receiving a blessing. It was really sweet; the entire congregation (including me) sat with stupid grins on their faces, watching these cute kids wander up for their own special part of the mass.
Anyway, I’m really glad that I gave the Kiwi Catholic church another try. I’m sure that I’ll be back there again next Sunday.