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  1338: St Thomas Aquinas, Bowral, New South Wales, Australia

St Thomas Aquinas, Bowral, New South Wales, Australia

Mystery Worshipper: Ian Climacus.
The church: St Thomas Aquinas, Bowral, New South Wales, Australia.
Denomination: Catholic Church in Australia.
The building: A modern brick building, dedicated in 1986. Inside, a large stained glass window, illuminated from the outside so it is clearly visible even at night, adorns the wall behind the altar, and the Stations of the Cross around the church are also in stained glass. Behind the left side of the sanctuary is a small and beautiful chapel accessible only from outside, dedicated to the Holy Family.
The church: The church shares a priest with St Michael's, Mittagong, which is several kilometres up the road toward Sydney.
The neighbourhood: Bowral, a town of around 10,000 people, is about 125 kilometres south of Sydney. Some residents commute to Sydney via train or road. It is possibly one of the best known towns in the Southern Highlands, due in no small part to it being the place where Sir Donald Bradman, Australia's most famous cricketer, grew up. The town is also home to the Bradman Musuem. Bowral holds an annual tulip festival in September. It is also popular for weekend escapes from Sydney, especially in winter as couples can indulge in romantic trysts with fireplaces (it getting cold enough up there for such things). Unfortunately I wasn't there for such a reason.
The cast: A certain Fr Bernard, whose surname I have forgotten, was filling in for the local priest, the Rev. Sean Cullen, who was away.
The date & time: 13 Ausust 2006, 6.00pm.

What was the name of the service?
Sunday Mass, 19th Sunday in ordinary time, Year B.

How full was the building?
Around 150 people, about half of what may comfortably fit in.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A cheery "Hello" as the bulletin was handed to me. People shared the peace with smiles and joy on their faces – it was one of the most beautiful peace ceremonies I have participated in.

Was your pew comfortable?
A standard pew which was neither comfortable nor terribly uncomfortable. The kneelers were in a different league altogether, as a later comment shows.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People were prayerfully preparing for mass, or having quiet talks. The musicians and cantor were practising hymns.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Please stand and join us in our first hymn."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A bulletin was given with service times, notices, reflections and summaries of the readings, and a number of advertisements on the back from businesses supporting the church. Hymns and songs were projected onto two screens either side of the altar via data projectors hanging from the roof. This wasn't as jarring as I may have thought had someone told me this was to be expected – it fitted in well and unobtrusively.

What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard and two guitars.

Did anything distract you?
The stained glass window on the wall behind the altar depicted Christ holding the wafer and the cup, with a host of people of all ages facing him – except for one child, who was facing us. Throughout most of the mass I wondered what that meant.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I'd describe it as modern low Catholic. The hymns and songs were modern and the ceremony was kept to a minimum (no incense).

St Thomas Aquinas, Bowral, New South Wales, Australia

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes, 10 of which were spent on the relief agency Caritas' appeal for the Middle East.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Fr Bernard spoke very slowly and paused often. He did mention he was not in good health, so this may have been the reason.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
It was a blessing to learn that there are practical ways in which to help Caritas with its work in the Middle East. In the five minutes that remained, Father spoke of Christ as the Bread of Life. The eucharist is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered. It is the ultimate gift of Christ to us.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The singing of the psalm. The cantor had the most beautiful voice, and I do love the arrangement whereby the cantor or choir sing verses and the congregation sings a refrain. And this congregation sang the refrain, the hymns, and all of their parts loudly.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The kneeler, which invoked feelings of penitence and pain. Thankfully, time spent kneeling was brief.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Within 20 seconds of the last hymn being finished, 90 percent of the congregation had left. I stayed in my pew, trying to give the impression of being lost, but after three or so minutes I thought those remaining might think I was praying, and so I headed up front to take a closer look at the large stained glass window and statues. No one approached me. I walked slowly along the side of the church, looking at the Stations, then to the entrance, looking at two paintings. People passed, but no words were exchanged nor were any non-verbal acknowledgements given.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in the area, there being no Orthodox parishes, I'd happily make my second home there, travelling up to Sydney once a month for Orthodox liturgy. I should hope that someone would eventually speak to me, although I'd probably end up making the first contact.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. Less ceremonious and more modern than I am used to, but it is always a blessing to participate in the eucharistic liturgy. And it was a truly beautiful mass.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"The eucharist is not a puzzle to be solved, but a mystery to be pondered."
 
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