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  1200: St Charles, Victory Park, Johannesburg, South Africa

St Charles, Victory Park, Johannesburg

Mystery Worshipper: Kerklooper.
The church: St Charles, Victory Park, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: It's a theatre-in-the-round, post Vatican 2 church, and looks a bit like a crown roast. It's known locally as The Lemon Squeezer. There is a central altar with benches on three sides. Two raised lecterns stand behind the altar which, because this is a very large church, distances the readers from the rest of the action. Against the east wall is a tabernacle on a smaller altar, and a large mural which is dominated by a huge, red squashed bagel that, judging by the figures around it, represents the Trinity. On the perimeter wall of the church, between the ribs, are confessionals, shrines and statues, as well as a cry room and some attractive stained glass windows, of which eight have been installed and about another ten are to come.
The church: The church is served by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who have their provincial house next door. The parish is very active, with many different ministries and masses in English, Sotho, Zulu, Spanish, Portuguese and Korean.
The neighbourhood: The area is part of the formerly white northern suburbs of Johannesburg which were developped immediately after the Second World War. The names Victory Park, Roosevelt Park and Montgomery Park say it all.
The cast: Father Steyn, a retired priest who walked with an ash stick and niftily hung it on his arm when distributing ashes or communion. He was assisted by male and female altar servers dressed in fetching maroon, and about 16 eucharistic ministers, two readers and six priests, who helped with the ashes and then vanished.
The date & time: 8.00am on Ash Wednesday, 1st March 2006.

What was the name of the service?
Holy Mass for Ash Wednesday with Blessing and Giving of Ashes.

How full was the building?
The church must seat at least 1,500, and quite a few people had to stand around the perimeter. There was a constant flow of people entering for the first 15 minutes of the service.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No, but I think that is normal in Catholic churches. I just squeezed in front of two people to get to my place. During the Peace we all shook hands quite enthusiastically and muttered the prescribed form of words. Someone pushed past me at the end and said "Sorry". I suppose that was some sort of a breakthrough.

Was your pew comfortable?
It was a substantial and comfortable bench, with a padded plank to kneel on.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived, the church was 4/5th full with organ mood music in the background. The congregation was quiet and devotional with odd baby sounds that were not obtrusive. When a baby did seem as if it was about to let rip, it was immediately removed to the cry room. Some people were lighting candles at shrines, but most were just praying or waiting for the service to begin.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning, welcome to this Ash Wednesday Celebration." This was from an anonymous man high up amongst the lecterns who introduced the priest and the readers. The service proper began: "In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Complete Celebration Hymnal and the parish's own Mass Book.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ that provided music for the hymns, the mass itself, and mood music in the gaps.

Did anything distract you?
The giant squashed red bagel (see picture below) behind the altar was a definite distraction. So was one of the "ashers" who stopped occasionally to discretely blow his nose. The organisation of the ashing was a bit haphazard. I found myself stuck in limbo between two ashers and being ignored by both for a while. Eventually, everyone looked suitably blackened about the forehead but it took rather a long time. The version of the Lord's Prayer was the modern Anglican version which half the congregation, including me, didn't realise until we hit the "time of trial". I don't know what the priest was saying – maybe I was just surrounded by a group of Anglicans.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Casually formal. Liturgical worship with a devout congregation in shorts, t-shirts, jeans, tennis outfits and running gear – it was a public holiday for the National Municipal Elections. The congregation was diverse in terms of age and cultural or ethnic group.

St Charles, Victory Park, Johannesburg

Exactly how long was the sermon?
4 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Fr Steyn had a good clear voice and spoke briefly on the relevance of the readings for the day.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Joel tells us of the need to repent for we cannot blame anyone else for our own sins. We are ambassadors for Christ, so we must do our best to keep Lent well, as Paul in 2 Corinthians tells us that "now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation." In the Gospel Jesus tells us that we must give alms, pray, do good deeds and fast, but not make a show of our Lenten observance.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The cantor had a deep rich bass voice which made the responsorial psalm a delight. Receiving holy communion in both kinds with such efficiency, and the atmosphere of natural devotion with so many people participating, was inspiring.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
God as giant red squashed bagel, as well as the uncertainty at the ash distribution.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. I shook Fr Steyn by the hand and we both said "good morning". Lots of people were socialising afterwards, but only with friends. I eventually wandered around the church looking for a foundation stone to try to date the building, with no success.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None. I suppose it is a fast day!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in the area I would certainly go here occasionally because of the convenience, but I'm not sure that I would want to make it permanent. Might do because of natural laziness.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Without a doubt. Large numbers of people from different backgrounds sharing common prayerful worship is always inspiring.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The dreadful bagel.
 
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