Mystery Worshipper: Biggles
Church: Chapel of St Mary & St Martha of Bethany
Location: Justus Lipsius College, Leuven, Belgium
Date of visit: Sunday, 19 June 2011, 10:30am
A decent-sized chapel at the end of a corridor, inside a red-brick neo-Gothic complex, now used as student accommodation. The chapel had been reordered since the 1960s and looks rather crowded and untidy, though the beautiful original reredos and wall stenciling remain. Dominating everything is the Bible Tree, a huge tree-shaped sculpture holding Bibles in a variety of languages. The book at the very top looked suspiciously like a Koran, though I was unable to verify this.
It's the English-speaking community of the university chaplaincy at the Dutch-speaking Katholiek Universiteit Leuven, the oldest Catholic university still in existence in the world. According to their website, their goal is "to welcome people from various parts of the world... to foster an open atmosphere where people... affiliated with the University and people who have other affiliations can meet and experience Christian community."
Leuven is located about 30 km east of Brussels and is the capital of the province of Flemish Brabant. It is home to the worldwide headquarters of Anheuser-Busch InBev, the largest beer company on the planet. Belgium's longest bar, as well as its smallest, are both located here. Leuven is very much a university town; besides the Katholiek Universiteit there are several vocational schools and a well respected music conservatory. The chapel is on a side street dominated by university accommodation, mostly former seminaries.
There seems to be a rotating schedule of priests, and I did not get the name of the celebrant today. He seemed to be from southeast Asia, perhaps Indonesia.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Liturgy.
How full was the building?
There were about 120 seats; perhaps 80 of these were taken. It felt full but not crowded. Four-fifths were young Africans in couples or small families; the rest were young people from all over the Catholic world. Over 40s could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I arrived about 10.15, when the choir were still practising, and I was the second congregant to sit down.
Was your pew comfortable?
Individual high-backed chairs with cushioned seats but no kneelers. Comfortable enough.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet until 10.25, when I began to sense a hubbub behind me. There was a lot of talking in this five minutes before mass, but I did not find it overly distracting. Mainly children and their parents. I couldn't tell if it was adults gossiping.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning" [pause for half-hearted response]. "Welcome to mass this morning. Please join in our opening hymn, number 125." This was delivered from the lectern by the choirmaster, as the celebrant waited at the back.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The group produces an A4 booklet each week containing the readings and community news. There was also a set of self-published hymnbooks with melody notation. An impressive effort for such a small group. However, the readings as actually given were a different translation from those printed in the booklet.
What musical instruments were played?
Piano and amplified acoustic guitar. Hymns were a mixture of traditional and modern, with an alleluia in an African language. I was pleased that they made the efforts to sing the mass parts, not just hymns. The choir (about six men) were obviously talented and well-rehearsed, and did a good job of turning pedestrian songs such as "Give Thanks" into something uplifting.
Did anything distract you?
There was a general background chatter from the many babies and toddlers, but I didn't mind this. What I did mind was a middle-aged Belgian couple in front of me who kept talking to each other at inappropriate moments. The man ran his hand over the woman's buttocks during the Lord's Prayer.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It would be pretty standard for a liberal parish in the US or UK. Lots of ad-libbing. The text of the creed was changed to have Jesus born of the Virgin Mary and be made "flesh" rather than "man". Communion was by self-intinction; a lay woman broke the hosts during the Agnus Dei as the priest completed his tour of the church for the exchange of peace. I was too shy to stand up when a middle-aged American woman invited all newcomers to stand and introduce themselves. A few eastern Europeans did, to a polite smattering of applause.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – The priest emphasized his important points by going VERY LOUD for a few words at a time. Not what I am used to in my English parish. It gave a great impression of enthusiasm, and helped to keep my attention.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It being Trinity Sunday, he spoke about the meaning of the Trinity. He said that though the Trinity is a mystery, God has revealed it to us in the scriptures. He also said something about kissing that I didn't understand. Then, he said how the Trinity shows the perfect communication and love that we should imitate.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The young people and their children.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The do-it-yourself attitude toward the liturgy, not following the rubrics or language that connect us to the universal Church.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was lost in the bustle of native languages, although I didn't feel particularly uncomfortable; I was happy to see the young African families catching up with each other.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
It was too crowded to barge my way through, so I didn't get any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – Though this is very much not what I would want in a parish, beggars can't be choosers in a foreign country. If I lived here, I might just put up with it rather than go to a Flemish or French parish.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
The community of African immigrants with their small children seems to me exactly what a parish should be like. On the other hand, too much of the liturgical worship seemed to be focused on the participants, not the Almighty.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The Bible Tree.