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70: Basilique de Ste. Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay, France
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Basilique de Ste. Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay
Mystery Worshipper: Anglican't.
The church: Basilique de Ste. Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay, France.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Built on a site where an abbey was founded in 864, Ste. Marie-Madeleine (11th-13th century) was a major Romanesque pilgrimage church in Burgundy and remains the largest abbey church in France. The relics of St Mary Magdalene are reputed to be housed in its Carolingian crypt. St Bernard of Clairvaux made his impassioned call for the ill-fated Second Crusade in front of this building in 1146.
The neighbourhood: The pretty medieval village of Vézelay (one of the traditional starting-points for the pilgrimage to Compostella) winds up a steep hill, known to the locals as 'la colline éternelle'. On top sits the Basilica of St Mary Magdalen, which is now home to a small community of Franciscan friars and nuns. The village and the immediate area around it also has its own 'appellation controlle' and produces a stylish chardonnay!
The cast: The community.
What was the name of the service?

How full was the building?
The community plus about 30 or so worshippers. The church was practically empty, but it is vast, it was a weekday Mass, and on a previous occasion when I worshipped there on a Sunday morning it was half full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
So-so. They use chairs which are reasonably comfortable, but in any case the local custom is to stand for a good part of the Mass.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People drifted in quietly.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Au nom du Pere, du Fils et du Saint-Esprit.'

What books did the congregation use during the service?
I didn't have a book.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ. There were no other instruments. The community sang the Ordinary of the Mass and did so very well. They could do with another bass, but religious orders don't recruit with a view to choral balance! One of the Sisters had a pure, almost vibrato-less and slightly breathy soprano, which reminded me strongly of the lead singer in Clannad.

Did anything distract you?

Basilique de Ste. Marie-Madeleine, Vézelay

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The style was careful, modern, Roman Catholic; quiet, relaxed and contemplative. The only break in the proceedings was the Peace, after the Prayer of Consecration, during which people milled around generally and there was a lot of kissing and hugging.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon, which was just as well, because I'm not sure that my French would have been up to it.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The general sense that the whole service was being performed lovingly and prayerfully, and the relaxed, contemplative style of the music.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not being able to make my communion. The community would have had no problem in communicating me – in fact, on my previous visit, an English-speaking Brother invited me to receive communion on the following day. But, given the attitude of Pope John Paul II to Anglican-Roman Catholic intercommunion (not to mention the opinions of that nice Cardinal Ratzinger on Anglican orders), I felt that I would have been acting under false pretences had I joined the queue.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I didn't really hang around. It was the end of the community's working day, the basilica was about to close for the night, and they and the congregation left quietly. Various members of the congregation smiled and said 'hello' (or 'bonsoir'), but it was not the occasion for the kind of post-eucharistic bun-fight that you find on a Sunday morning.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
They don't serve refreshments after weekday Masses.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8. If I lived in the village I would attend as a matter of course: its the parish church. But since I have no intention of becoming a Roman Catholic, I'd still have to find a church where I could make my communion at reasonably regular intervals.

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 building (which is stunning) and the relaxed, meditative style of the service.

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