Mystery Worshipper: Cantato Domino
Church: Regensburg Cathedral
Location: Regensburg, Germany
Date of visit: Sunday, 16 September 2007, 10:00am
St Peter's Cathedral, Regensburg, is hailed by architectural authorities as the most important Gothic building in Bavaria. It was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. However, the spires, strongly reminiscent of Cologne Cathedral, are 19th century. It is a beautiful building with one truly outstanding feature: the east end has no ambulatory and instead the side aisles end in mini apses of their own. The windows of the central apse therefore continue almost to the ground and behind the high altar is a kaleidoscope of blue and gold medieval stained glass.
The cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Regensburg and the centre of the diocese. During the Reformation, the town council voted to become Lutheran but the diocese remained Roman Catholic. There are some Lutheran churches in Regensburg but most of the city is enthusiastically Catholic. It perhaps helps to have such close links to the man at the top, of which more below.
Regensburg was left mostly unharmed during World War II and in the physical sense Regensburg Cathedral is the centrepiece of a well-preserved medieval city. Nearby are local churches including the Baroque Alte Kapelle and the exceptionally ancient St Ulrich's, now a museum. In the spiritual sense, the cathedral is in the heartland of Pope Benedict XVI hero-worship. Benedict (as Joseph Ratzinger) was a Professor of Theology at Regensburg University and his elder brother, Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, was the Kapellmeister (choirmaster) at the cathedral. The Pope has said of Regensburg: "Here I really feel at home" and declares that the cathedral choir, the Regensburger Domspatzen, is his family. The people of Regensburg clearly cherish their connection with the top man. The Pope's face smiles out at one from shops everywhere. Regensburg must be the only place in the world where one would find a biography of Georg Ratzinger, not to mention book after book on der Papst.
An unnamed cathedral canon was the only cleric and presided over the mass. He was assisted by four acolytes, one of them the thurifer, who between them did the duties as readers. A fifth acolyte appeared as the service went on. Leading the sung element of the service was the resident boys' choir, the Regensburger Domspatzen, and their Domkapelle Meister (DKM) Roland Buchner. The organ was played by the Domorganist Herr Prof. Franz Josef Stoiber.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Mass.
How full was the building?
Packed to capacity. There were even people standing in the aisles. I arrived about an hour early to get a good seat (front row pew, in fact) and was glad I did. The cathedral filled gradually from about 9.15, but about 15 minutes before the service started the crowd thronged in and filled the building up. There was a mixed crowd. Many tourists, of course, but a strong crowd of locals, too. Some were in traditional Bavarian outfits, but there was also a strong showing of Burberry chic.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I let myself in and found my seat and my hymnal. Possibly there were people on hand later to welcome congregants, but I did arrive very early.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was fine certainly not distractingly uncomfortable. More to the point, it was an attractively carved Baroque piece of church furniture and a delight to observe. It also had a high prayer desk in front, which was ideal for hiding the notes I was taking for this report!
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Increasingly dynamic. The cathedral was dark and quiet when I arrived. There was a buzz of activity up the front as the new intake of the Domspatzen had their photograph taken, with DKM Buchner demonstrating how to pretend they were singing. A warden removed the ropes around the sanctuary and lit the candles on the high altar using a light on the end of a gas flare. After their photo was taken, the celestial sound of the choir rehearsing drifted in and the cathedral really started to fill up from 9.45. However, it remained remarkably silent inside. The bells started to ring and the organ absolutely pulsated as the clergy party processed in.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The Lord be with you" (in German, of course).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Gotteslob: Katholischen Gebet und Gesangbuch. This contained the melody lines for the psalm and hymn which were sung. This being solemn mass, the congregational input was limited to singing the psalm refrain, one hymn and speaking the occasional Gott sei Dank.
What musical instruments were played?
The pipe organ. The case is in the sanctuary and many of the pipes are hidden behind the large, silver high altar. This organ has a loud, rich tone, but the musical authorities at the Dom are unhappy with it. An appeal is under way (backed by the music-loving Papst Benedikt) to build and install a large organ in the north transept. There seems to be some annoyance at the cathedral that all nearby cathedrals, including Augsburg, Munich and Bamberg, have large and renowned organs.
Did anything distract you?
The number of the psalm and the hymn were flashed up on an electronic screen. This seemed more like the indicator board for a train station than an item of church furniture. The little trebles of the choir sang like angels but fidgeted a lot, which meant there was a constant flash of movement of the red robes up the front. However, they were very little boys and they did have to stand for the entire service.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As high as one can possibly go; this is Bavarian Catholicism, after all. There was a full complement of smells and bells, plus the incomparable singing of the plainchant by the Domspatzen. The genuflections performed by many of the congregants were the deepest and most profound I have ever observed.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
About 17 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – It is actually very unair for me to judge as I would have understood about one word in six, given my highly defective German. I have therefore rated him right in the middle.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The canon preached on family values, to judge from the number of times he referred to the members of the family.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing, of course. The Regensburger Domspatzen is the world's oldest cathedral choir and was founded by Bishop Wolfgang in AD 975. The boys sing with the characteristic vigour and robustness of German boys' choirs, but the work of Buchner and before him Ratzinger and Theobald Schrems has elevated the standard of this choir beyond most others in Germany. I would imagine that many in the congregation had come for the choir and the trip was worth it. They are far and away my favourite choral group and to hear them live in the cathedral that they serve is as close to heaven as this world can provide. The performance of the psalm was especially heavenly. It was a blessed relief not to have Anglican chant droning away. Instead, a young tenor sang the verses of the psalm as a solo and the congregation sang a refrain between each verse.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Even with the Domspatzen, this Protestant couldn't shake off a tiny unease at participating in Roman Catholic corporate worship. There was also an unsettling incident before the service. Two German women behind me were conversing about the cathedral and an elderly man in front of them turned around and ordered them to be silent. Who was he to give instructions like that? The whole thing smacked of the most unctuous form of arrogance.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The canon, acolytes and choristers all disappeared. The crowd dispersed and the building was given over to tourists. The canon didn't stand at the door to farewell the crowd.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Are you kidding?! This is a Bavarian cathedral; there is no church hall or the like for everyone to troop across to for a coffee.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – It certainly made me glad of the inspiration provided to composers and musicians by their faith.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The singing of the choir. All else is detail.