|966: St Mary's, Belfast, Northern Ireland|
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Mystery Worshipper: Mystic Magpie.
The church: St Mary's, Castle Lane, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The church has collected a few styles since it was built in the 18th century as Belfast's first Catholic church. The stained glass windows are tall and narrow. In the garden is a Lourdes-type grotto. Inside are colourful statues, stations of the cross, candles, and frescoed angels hovering over a domed colonnade. Purple advent cloths added to the riot of colour but shouldn't they have been adding a sombre note?
The church: It's an important focus for the Irish-speaking community on Sundays, being the only church to offer a weekly mass in Irish. During the week, a lunchtime choir is the attraction.
The neighbourhood: Located in a narrow street in the main shopping area of the city centre, the church is convenient for private prayer. Immediately opposite is "The Holy Shop" selling prayer books, statues and other items of devotion.
The cast: The priest this week was the Rev. Brendan Mullen. The previous Sunday the congregation arrived but the expected priest did not come. It isn't always easy to get an Irish-speaking priest, but I'm told it's unusual for none to arrive. Anyway, it did not deter people from coming back this week.
What was the name of the service?
Sung Mass in Irish.
How full was the building?
More empty than full, but it felt cohesive rather than scattered.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Everyone to whom I spoke responded willingly and made friendly conversation, and several times I was welcomed explicitly. Although I spoke English, there was no hint of disapproval.
Was your pew comfortable?
The plain wooden seat was comfortable, but the kneeler was too close to the pew in front, which made kneeling a bit difficult.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People arrived early, and any chatting was done outside. On entering the church, some crossed themselves with holy water and some lit candles before genuflecting in the aisle and kneeling or sitting in a pew. A small boy trying to genuflect managed a curtsey in the wrong direction. Another child whispered so quietly to his mother that I could not hear him two feet away. The children's reverence seemed especially remarkable.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Dia dhaoibh ar maidin ("Good morning", or literally, "God be with you this morning"). Shortly afterwards came the formal start of a mass, recognisable by its rhythm and repetition: In ainm an Athar, agus an Mhic, agus an Spioraid Naoimh.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Mass sheets in Irish and English were available and I gratefully took one of each, though the English ones were probably meant for the earlier mass. There was also a hymn sheet in Irish.
What musical instruments were played?
Guitar, traditional Irish instruments including harp, and the beautiful singing voices of the musicians.
Did anything distract you?
Trying to decide whether the canopy over the tabernacle looked more like a gazebo, a bandstand or a merry-go-round. Some of the internal restructuring here has been controversial, and I suspect this little edifice has sparked debate.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Definitely neither of the above. Devotional but the word does not evoke adequately the mesmerising music, the other-worldly sound of the language, and the rhythms of the liturgy. I'd like to say it was verging on the mystical, but what would it need to make it fully so? Perhaps only that I should enter it fully, instead of dithering on the edges, fussing over my inability to understand the words.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Six minutes, I think. Being engulfed by sights and sounds, and at sea as regards the language, I was not initially aware the sermon had begun.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 based on delivery and reception. The priest held his congregation's attention, conveying authority and sincerity. As I didn't understand it, I can't give marks for content, but it wouldn't be fair to deduct them either.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I noticed the Irish for James a few times (yes, it's Seamas) and John (Eoin), though not together, so I deduced the sermon was about the day's readings, which I cribbed from the English mass sheet: St James on being patient about the Lord's coming, and a gospel passage about St John the Baptist preparing the way.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
All the sounds. I don't know what it was about the combination of Irish language and music and the mass you'd think it would be incongruous, but it seemed to work as well as Latin did in the old days. Not able to understand the words, I noticed that the other elements stood out more clearly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Feeling a bit left out at communion time. Though baptised as a Catholic, I do not accept any one tradition as the correct one. A hell of my own choosing?
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
First I went up to thank the musicians, who were in the front row, and this led to conversation with others nearby. I then tried looking lost at the back, but barely had time to watch one lady kissing the feet of the St Francis statue, when one of the church organisers spoke to me. He told me a bit about the church and its community, and said he was glad to meet me on my first visit, and that I was very welcome.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I didn't notice any.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 Although the sounds were wonderful, the over-sweetened decor would be like too much icing on a cake - you don't want another slice straight away. Instead, I'd like to hear this service in a cave, a forest, or even a field, with a stone altar.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not in the sense that this is something Christianity has that other faiths don't, since the ornate/mystical combination reminded me of some forms of Hindu devotion. But yes, in the sense that I'm glad Christianity is so diverse.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Alas, the angels and their merry-go-round. Or was it a wedding cake?