Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut
Church: Basilica of St Nicholas
Location: Nantes, France
Date of visit: Wednesday, 14 September 2011, 7:00pm
Photo: © Fab5669 and used under license There have been Christians here since the third century, when St Clair became the town’s first bishop. It replaces an 11th century building and was restored between 1844 and 1869. It was one of the first neo-Gothic churches in France and is now an historic monument.
It is one of the three churches forming the parish of Notre Dame, covering the core of the old city. Apparently it is the focus of youth work in the city, particularly among university students.
The basilica sits in the north side of middle of the ancient centre of Nantes, now tourist-infested and not that far from the fortress of the Dukes of Brittany. There are plenty of cafés and restaurants nearby.
No names were available. There was a celebrant in his 80s, assisted by another priest, likely in his 40s, and a slightly younger deacon.
What was the name of the service?Parish Mass.
How full was the building?
Evening mass was in the chancel, between the mediæval high altar and a modern altar at the far end of the chancel, with the congregation facing west toward the main body of the church. As the chancel had seating (including canons’ stalls) for under a hundred, the 58 men and 44 women filled all the seats and over a dozen were left standing, perched on the steps of the high altar, and leaning against pillars.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was among the first; as others arrived, a polite nod with eye contact was common, which is more than I expected in a major church of a major city.
Was your pew comfortable?
I had taken a seat in one of the canons’ stalls, and was pushed into the far end of the range of seats as the place filled up. I had chosen it for the padded seat as I knew that collegiate church clergy have a tendency of somehow finding comfort.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet, but with low-key noises as others arrived, and shuffling as the seats filled out.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Au nom du Père, du Fils, et du Saint-Esprit.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Nobody seemed to have any service books with them. We all followed from memory, or not at all.
What musical instruments were played?
This was an evening service, and there was no music at all.
Did anything distract you?
I was struck by the silent intensity of the congregation. None of them, myself excepted, seem to be casual attendees. We had a remarkable tableau of young men and women of all origins, several kneeling on the hard marble by the high altar, motorcycle helmets assembled into a small pyramid, satchels of school books and laptops at their feet.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was an evening mass without music, but the intensity of congregants’ devoutness took me aback. Nobody was dozing at this one, and there was an air of people preparing themselves for a mission of one sort or the other. The celebrant, flanked by the other two clerics, took a position at the north end of the altar for the readings and opening prayers, then at the offertory moved to say those prayers with his back to the people. For the consecration, he moved around the altar to face the congregation. This struck me as a novel way of addressing the ad orientem/versus populum debate while paying an unconscious tribute to the north-end preference. When the deacon led the intercessions, he held his stole in the same way that a Byzantine deacon holds his orarion. The peace was passed with courtesy and quiet intensity – a parishioner clasped me by the arm when he shook my hand, and somehow it did not seem to be an invasion of my space. Another parishioner, a young woman with a student’s backpack, shook my hand and told me that I was very welcome at the assembly.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 — The priest's pronunciation and diction were clear (a point I like to make, as clergy sometimes forget that not all in attendance are native-speakers of their language).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He spoke of how, when he first came to Brittany and biked about the back roads, he noticed the many roadside crosses that had been erected by devout farmers, and how they were always built so that the passer-by had to look up to the skies. As a cyclist, he was at first slightly annoyed, but came to be grateful that his attention was diverted from the road and its obstacles, even if only for a minute. Christ was lifted up for us, so that we could be lifted from our burdens, taste the heavens, and return to our mission each day strengthened and renewed.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The intensity of the devotion of almost everyone in the congregation. Nantes and the Vendée were sources of missionary endeavour for centuries and I had a feeling that this had not entirely died out. It was clear that this was not a social club.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Nothing in particular.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone instantaneously disappeared, either down the steps to the nave or through the side doors. The clergy snappily processed out to the sacristy and I was soon left by myself. I took a picture or two of the tomb of King Francis II, and then left to enjoy a bit of eel in garlic in a nearby restaurant.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, so eels in garlic and a bottle of red wine substituted. The next day, I saw the woman student in a crowd of gaudily-costumed medical students circling the main square and chanting to celebrate their return to class, and we exchanged smiles. Later that afternoon, I took a ride on the mechanical elephant at the old shipyards, and saw one of the other worshippers working at a couscous kiosk, and he gave me a quick nod of recognition. Even at a quarter of a million, Nantes seemed to be a small place.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 — This was an interesting group of people in the chancel, and I might well go back.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
As a traveller, I had not expected to notice the depth of life in a congregation so quickly, and felt strengthened by it.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The tableau of young people crowded about the altar, attentive to every word and action; and a strong sense of welcome, not because they were trying to recruit me but because that’s what they are.