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745: St John's Cathedral, Warsaw, Poland
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St John's Cathedral, Warsaw
Mystery Worshipper: Leo.
The church: St John's Cathedral, Warsaw, Poland.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: Originally an early 14th century structure built on the site of an earlier wooden shrine, Hitler's tanks drove into the nave and reduced much of it to rubble during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After the war, a lot of money was put into restoring it to its original Gothic style.
The church: Churches round here seem much like supermarkets – you can hear mass at any one of them.
The neighbourhood: The cathedral is just off the Old Town square, reckoned to be one of the most remarkable bits of postwar reconstruction anywhere in Europe. Three storey merchants' houses have been scrupulously rebuilt to their 17th and 18th century design. The area is now awash with outside bars and horse-drawn carriage rides for tourists.
The cast: No names were announced. There was a celebrant and a deacon.
What was the name of the service?
Mszw swieta (Holy Mass).

How full was the building?
About 140 people, which made the nave two-thirds full. The cathedral was originally a parish church and isn't all that long. I was somewhat alarmed to find such a small number at what was the main Sunday mass, but there is a church on every block in this area and each one has six or seven Sunday masses so the worshippers are spread out in time and place.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. It's a fairly impersonal place.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, standard wooden continental Catholic pew.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was very quiet, despite the constant movement of people coming in.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
My Polish is virtually non-existent but, judging by people crossing themselves, I presume the celebrant was singing, "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books at all, but people seemed to know the words of the various songs covering the action of the mass as well as the traditional gloria, creed, etc.

What musical instruments were played?
I was disappointed that there was no choir but remembered that English cathedrals do not usually have their resident choir during August. There was an organ and a male cantor. Most of the prayers and responses were sung, led by the cantor. I discovered this was a frequent practice during weekday masses, too, when I visited other churches in the city.

Did anything distract you?
Nothing, really. Several people came in late but were reverentially quiet, kneeling in the side aisles.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I had expected a solemn mass with incense, but it was fairly simple.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Given my lack of Polish, all I can say is that it was mostly read in a flat, vaguely mystical voice.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I made out the words "Jesus" and "Church" but other than that I haven't a clue and wish that I had bought my missal so that I could have studied the readings.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Feeling the very devotional atmosphere that is evident in Polish churches both during and outside services. The faith of the older worshippers must have been sorely shaken by Poland's tragic history.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Perhaps it's trivial, but the stewards seemed to be saying "thank you" to people as they put their (very meager) coins in the collection baskets. I'd have asked them if they had any more cash. Then there was the peace: as I was wishing I'd looked up the word in my phrase book, I realized I didn't need it as there was very little hand-shaking – just a few perfunctory nods to right and left. Also, communion was given in one kind only and I was somewhat upset by the rapid way with which the clergy dispensed consecrated wafers on to people's tongues, working the altar rail back and forth with machine-like speed.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People rushed out pretty quickly; nobody spoke to anybody.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, but I had a good espresso in the nearby square with my atheist partner, who was waiting for me. Before that, I followed some people to the "holy shop" opposite which sold icons of the ubiquitous Black Madonna and postcards of Pope John Paul II.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I should have gone to the Anglican Chaplaincy near my hotel, but the noticeboard meagerly announced "Episcopal Worship" without indicating whether it was mattins or eucharist; at the Cathedral, you can guarantee "The Lord's Service on the Lord's Day".

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 high-speed "delivery" of holy communion.
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