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175: St Francis of Assisi, New York City
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St Francis of Assisi, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Newman's Own.
The church: St Francis of Assisi, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic Chuch.
The building: Complex of plain vanilla, stone buildings, comprising the church, friars' residence, adult education building, outdoor shrine and bookstore, with access to the counselling centre offices from the crowded vestibule. St Francis is a two-tiered universe – Mass was conducted simultaneously in the upper and lower churches. The interior of the lower church is filled with devotional shrines to various saints.
The neighbourhood: St Francis is located in the vicinity of Madison Square Garden and Penn Station, and has a great degree of bustle, even for New York. The friars' commitment to the poor is extensive and obviously pressing, for many of the homeless surround the vicinity of the church.
The cast: His name was not mentioned.
What was the name of the service?
Saturday Evening Mass of Sunday Obligation.

How full was the building?
The lower church, where I was seated, was packed, both with those attending mass and with extensive queues waiting for confession. There was a diverse mix of ages, races and social classes.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no greeting at the door, and a Filipino group obviously had some sort of "do" in progress that was causing much commotion in the rear of the church. At the exchange of the sign of peace, an elderly man turned to me and said, "Hi, I'm Joe." I responded, "Pax et Bonum", appropriately for the territory.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, rather standard.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The general impression was very hectic: many people lighting candles, whispering to one another on the confession queue, preparing for some sort of gathering, and, just maybe, gossiping here and there. I myself had an irreverent giggle as I read through the adult education leaflet – it seemed very... creative, and rather New Age, in some of its offerings.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Missalette, from Liturgical Press, if I recall correctly.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Though the service was conducted with reverence, if not style, the entire atmosphere was a bit distracting. The congregation was largely devout but not terribly attentive. My heart ached for some homeless people who were catching a nap in a few pews.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Franciscans have never really earned a reputation for being a class act, and in that sense the service might be termed very traditional. There was warmth and a certain homely reverence, but the entire quality was rather bargain basement.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Forgot to check my watch, but I would estimate 8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
3. He somehow related the Gospels to "self-esteem", a topic as stale as a week old scone.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We can "live gracefully" – God grants us self-esteem. I blush to admit that I found it so boring that I kept going back to that education leaflet, with its mention of the enneagram, trendy psychology and films, just to keep myself entertained. (I'd had two margaritas at TGI Friday's, round the corner, before time, and it was an effort to stay awake.)

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
There was a sense of warm community spirit that came through despite the standard New York bustle. I was very moved by the devotion I could see in the faces and actions of some of those around me, and I love a church where the homeless are welcome to nap. Francis of Assisi seemed very near, though he was rather more musical than this crowd.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Realising, as my scribbled notes contained more disparaging comments about the parish's lack of style and poor music, what a snob I must be at heart.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
One of the homeless approached me and, as we smoked together, told me about how he'd obtained a pair of new boots when he begged outside the door of an Al-Anon meeting. "I sold them, of course." "I know you did."

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The sense of warmth, fellowship, devotion and service to the poor was very strengthening, even if my aesthetic sense was not exactly satisfied. The bread line, counselling centre and some leaflets made it plain that the commitment to helping those in need is not taken lightly here.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Seeing such a large crowd for the eucharist and for confession reminded me that there are many, thankfully, for whom the sacraments are a vital part of life.
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