|359: Basilica di S. Marco, Venice|
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Mystery Worshipper: Five Pints.
The church: Basilica di S. Marco, Venice.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: This is one of the most breathtaking buildings in Christendom. In John Ruskin's words: "A treasure heap... a confusion of delight." Building of a shrine began on the site in 828 on the arrival of St Mark's body, stolen from its tomb in Alexandria by a pair of Venetian merchants. By 1064 they were onto their third basilica and over the years it has acquired 13th century mosaics, Gothic pointed arches and facades heavily restored between the 17th and 19th centuries. Not to mention lots of ornaments, features and figures looted from abroad (the most notable example being the four bronze horses over the main entrance).
The church: S. Marco only became a cathedral in 1807. Officially until then it was merely the chapel of the doge (ruler of Venice). It's a symbol of the city's maverick position as a once-autonomous republic. The patriarch could only call a synod with the doge's permission and priests had to be Venetian-born. It's been said that until modern times, the Venetians effectively ran a semi-autonomous branch of the Roman Catholic Church.
The neighbourhood: Napoleon called the Piazza S. Marco (St Mark's Square) "the drawing room of Europe". It is dominated by the basilica's facade and the 99-metre campanile (bell tower), from which "persons of scandalous behaviour" were once hung in a cage for days for their sins, up which Emperor Frederick III ascended on his horse, and from which Galileo demonstrated the telescope. Also nearby is the doge's palace, a number of exorbitant cafes with outside seating and their own orchestras, swanky shops and numerous hawkers, lots of pigeons and Venice's most expensive hotels. 500 metres from the basilica is the busy waterfront, with entrancing views and the entrance to the city's famous Grand Canal.
The cast: They didn't hang around long enough for me to check their names, and the ushers were more concerned with crowd control.
What was the name of the service?
La Santa Messa Con il Popolo di Dio ("The Holy Mass of the People of God") for the 6th Sunday of Easter. This was one of six masses that morning, but this one, unlike the others, was sung.
How full was the building?
Bursting with people: as soon as the faithful attending the 9.00am mass got up from their seats, we joined the push and shove to find a seat for our service, which started at 10.00am.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The service sheets were on our seats when we arrived. At the peace I greeted a number of people around me but they didn't appear to speak English.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was a rather upmarket director's chair in patterned fabric.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A frantic hubbub at first, subsiding to a general air of devotion in the moments before the altar party arrived.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Nel nome del Padre e del Figlio e dello Spirito Santo."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A small service sheet printed especially for the day, with the whole liturgy (excluding the complete eucharistic prayer) and the text of the readings, all in Italian.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Apart from gazing up and around throughout at the stunning (mostly 13th century) mosaics, I was unnerved by a couple of pigeons which fluttered and soared above us in the central dome for most of the service. Also distracting was an agitated deacon who appeared to spend most of the service strutting back and forth to the sacristy.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I don't worship regularly with European Catholics, but it seemed to include all that is best of modern post Vatican II worship. It was reverent but unfussy, dignified but not over ostentatious. No one stuck out in the service; the president, the preacher, the choir of men and women tucked away in a gallery and the organ all played their part, without taking over. Even the strutting deacon wasn't that obtrusive. The offertory and preparation of the altar were in an intangible way deeply moving, but not hyped up.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
My instinct, having listened to countless sermons in my life, gives him a 7. His was a polished style, with a confident, unhurried delivery and very little reference to notes. He was gently spoken but the sound system amplified his voice perfectly.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I cannot be sure because I don't speak Italian. But he appeared to be making reference to the three readings: Acts 15 (Paul, Barnabas and Silas sort out a disagreement over the circumcision of Gentile believers); Revelation 21 and the Gospel (John 14:23-29, where Jesus promises the Holy Spirit). He seemed to say "Spirito Santo" a lot!
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Gazing up into the sanctuary as mass was celebrated over the tomb of St Mark (although his bones were probably destroyed by fire in 976), I caught sight of the stunning Pala d'Oro (golden altar screen), S. Marco's most precious treasure, containing hundreds of jewels dating from the 10th to the 14th centuries. Then, as I lifted my eyes, they met the arresting gaze of Christ Pantocrator, a relatively new mosaic, which dates from the 1500s. To cap this feast for the eyes, the sound of the cathedral's huge bells being rung outside, in the midst of a heavenly sung Sanctus, made it an unforgettable experience.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The noisy shushing of over-zealous tour guides, who had allowed their groups to squeeze into one corner, roped off for those not coming to worship, but waiting to enter the basilica.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Within minutes of the altar party disappearing behind Sansovino's sacristy door as we lifted our heads from silent prayer, the hordes were bearing down on us, looking for a seat for the 11.30am mass. We got up and fled with the rest of the congregation.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any, but we walked away from the Piazza and found a cheaper and more intimate café where we reflected on our worship experience over a welcome cappuccino.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
I'm torn on this one, but it would have to be a 3. How would you ever get to know the rest of the local church family there?
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The whole act of worship pointed to God, rather than to an individual, which is surely how it should be.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Marking 10 years of marriage to my wife by visiting one of the world's most beautiful cities and worshipping in one of Christendom's most stunning churches.