Our Lady of Sorrows Priory, Phoenix, Arizona, USA

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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Our Lady of Sorrows Priory
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 6 October 2019, 10:00am

The building

A large church in the Spanish Mission style. One enters a spacious narthex where one finds a rack of literature, a table holding a box of chapel veils, a Pietà with a votive candle stand in front, and doors to the choir loft and cry room. The interior of the church is spacious and bright, with whitewashed walls and ceiling and a white tile floor. All of the windows are clear glass. The east-facing altar stands under a baldachin. There are two side altars. I was struck by the almost total absence of statuary and other devotional items – only a statue of the Sorrowful Madonna with votive candle stand broke the stark simplicity of the room. The church is the repository of several relics: those of St Modesta, St Emerentiana, St John Vianney, St Christina, St Philomena, and St Francis of Assisi.

The church

They belong to the Society of St Piux X, a branch of Catholicism that rejects most of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Although in recent times the Society has become partially reconciled with the Vatican, it is still not considered to be in full communion. The priory’s ministries are described on their website and include the Archconfraternity of St Stephen, whose purpose is to teach the altar server (quoting from their website) ‘how to observe the rites and ceremonies according to the Church, encouraging him to understand the significance and purpose of the ceremonies in which he serves.’ (Judging by the lack of care, both in duties and vestiture, that Miss Amanda has observed elsewhere, every parish should have one!) The priory also includes a retreat house. The parish school, Our Lady of Sorrows Academy, (again quoting from their website) ‘provides children [in grades 1 through 12] with a thorough Catholic education … through exposure to the true, the good and the beautiful.’ Two masses (Tridentine Rite, in Latin, needless to say) are celebrated each Sunday as well as Tuesdays and Thursdays, with one celebrated on other weekdays. Confessions are heard in English and Spanish Thursday through Sunday. The divine office (prime, sext, vespers and compline) is said each day except Thursday.

The neighborhood

The neighborhood: They are located on Baseline Road at 7th Street within the southernmost bounds of the Phoenix city limits. South Mountain, the locus of most area radio and TV broadcast towers, is nearby.

The cast

The priory is staffed by a community of five priests and two religious brothers. One priest took the mass, assisted by a second priest who preached and a third priest who assisted at communion, plus boat boy, thurifer, crucifer, two acolytes, and a master of ceremonies. The celebrant wore a lace alb over which he put on a green cope for the Asperges and a lemon-lime green Roman fiddleback chasuble for mass. The remainder of the altar party were impeccably attired in cotta, cassock, and black haberdashery.

What was the name of the service?

High Mass.

How full was the building?

I counted room for about 500. It was about three-quarters full – someone in every pew, but we weren’t cramped. Mostly a young family crowd. A dress code is enforced: ‘modest, decent and proper attire.’ For ladies, ‘a head-covering and a dress that goes well below the knees when sitting;’ and for gentlemen, no ‘sports clothes or athletic shoes.’ Miss Amanda had selected one of her most conservative outfits and felt right at home.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No.

Was your pew comfortable?

Unpadded wooden pew – it was OK. I found the kneelers uncomfortable, though, and kneeling on hard marble at the communion rail was sheer torture!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Silent as a tomb. No visiting at all. About 20 minutes before mass began, a layman led the Rosary (Glorious mysteries) followed by the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary. After that, the organist played some twiddly bits before the altar party was ready to begin.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

We began with the hymn ‘O Mary of Graces’ to the tune of Siobán ni Laoghaire, after which the priest intoned the Asperges.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The hardbound The Traditional Roman Hymnal, which contained Gregorian Chant ordinaries (in Gregorian notation) as well as an assortment of traditional hymns and miscellaneous service material.

What musical instruments were played?

Electronic organ, nicely voiced. There was a schola cantorum of five young men.

Did anything distract you?

I’m pleased to say that one of the acolytes lit the ‘high six’ candles in the proper order, starting with the epistle side, candle nearest the crucifix. But there was one candle (as there always is) that just wouldn’t take its light! He had to enlist one of his colleagues to lift the candle down from the pedestal so he could reach it more easily with his taper. Even so, it took a sputtering sort of light, and eventually went out again – as did another one (see below). The celebrant had a rather Friar Tuck-ish build, and the fiddleback chasuble and lace alb didn’t flatter him, I’m afraid. He also had trouble genuflecting, and limited himself to what amounted to curtseying. He did manage a full kneel at the Et incarnatus est in the Creed, but had to grasp the MC’s shoulder to steady himself.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

What we used to call a missa cantata in the old days – everything done exactly as the Council of Trent had ordered it to be done. The altar party, bless their souls, moved with dignity and precision – the Archconfraternity of St Stephen has put the fear of God into them! There was the aforementioned opening hymn and a closing hymn: ‘O Queen of the Holy Rosary’ sung to Ellacombe (strange to hear a Marian hymn sung to that tune). The ordinary of the mass was the Gregorian chant Missa Orbis Factor, and the propers were sung to their chant settings. The schola sang two anthems: the very beautiful Adoro Te Devote and the equally beautiful Pange Lingua of St Thomas Aquinas. Of course only the schola sang anything; the congregation kept their lips glued shut. Incense billowed copiously. Bells jingled merrily at all the right places. We received communion on the tongue, kneeling at the rail, with a paten under our chins.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

3 — The young priest who preached appeared to be fresh out of seminary. He spoke rapidly and indistinctly, like a college boy reading a paper in front of the class. One wonders what he was doing during his homiletics and elocution classes at seminary.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Tomorrow being the Feast of the Holy Rosary, he spoke about the Rosary. We are strengthened by the power of prayer; without prayer we are nothing. We are outnumbered by the enemy; prayer leads to victory because the victory is not ours, but God’s. St Dominic labored in vain against the Albigensian heresy until Our Lady gave him the Rosary. We must avoid the danger of letting the Rosary become a mere repetition by rote; we must pray it from the heart. Only then can we comprehend its power. We must teach our children how to pray the Rosary. It is our connection to life.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It was heavenly to hear all that glorious chant, especially the beautiful eucharistic hymns of St Thomas Aquinas.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

But I thought the schola’s singing was a little choppy, as if they did not truly understand the Latin. This was especially evident in the Credo. And those candles that wouldn’t stay lit! Not only did the sputtering one go out, but so did the one next to it right in the middle of mass. An acolyte tried to light them again, but in vain. And so we finished the mass on four cylinders instead of six – no wonder it seemed to drag on at times!

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

Refreshments had been announced as being served in the parish hall, so I followed the crowd over there.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

The crowd consisted mainly of children, though – what happened to the adults I couldn’t tell you. There was a good assortment of donuts, and fresh brewed coffee in styrofoam cups. The coffee was bitter – too strong even for me. I took a donut and a cup of coffee and sat down at an empty table. A flock of children soon descended on the table and stared at me as if to think, ‘What is this grown-up doing at our table?’ So I changed my seat, but another flock of children descended on that table also, so I left without finishing the coffee – it was too strong to drink anyway.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

0 – As beautifully done as this trip down Memory Lane was, it made me realize how far the Church has progressed in becoming more accessible to the people. The preacher mentioned ‘the so-called Reformation’ in his sermon. Sorry, Father, it was a real Reformation, and badly needed. As was Vatican II.

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

Yes and no – God was there, but it was like there was an invisible wall between us and God.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The precision with which the altar party carried out their duties.

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