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1609: Mar Ibrahim, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA
Mar Ibrahim, Scottsdale, Arizona
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: Mar Ibrahim, Scottsdale, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Chaldean Catholic Church, Eparchy of St Peter the Apostle. The Chaldean Catholic Church split from the Assyrian Church of the East in 1552 over a disagreement regarding the succession of bishops, and has been in full communion with Rome since 1553. Its primate is the Patriarch of Babylon, currently His Beatitude Mar Emmanuel III, whose seat is in Baghdad. In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI elevated Emmanuel to the rank of cardinal, the first time in history that a Chaldean patriarch was given the title.
The building: A very unassuming structure that looks better from the rear than the front. Inside is a large, oblong, low-ceilinged room, short on windows but well lit by fluorescent fixtures. Stations of the cross grace the walls. The altar is free-standing and backed by a tabernacle. Under the altar table, between the pediments, is a full color diorama of Da Vinci's rendering of the Last Supper. To the left of the altar is a statue of Christ the King, to the right the Blessed Mother. Over top is a narrow strip of stained glass depicting the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, with Hebrew lettering. There are no royal doors, iconostasis or icons as in other Eastern churches.
The church: Outside of Iraq, Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, significant numbers of Chaldean Catholics live in Australia, Canada, France, and the United States, especially in Arizona, California and Michigan. In recent times the most notable Chaldean Catholic was Saddam Hussein's foreign minister, Tariq Aziz.
The neighborhood: Scottsdale, the Beverly Hills of Arizona, lies to the east of Phoenix. A wealthy, upscale community, called "Snottsdale" or "Snobbsdale" by some less fortunate residents of the area, it oozes money from every square inch. In 1937, internationally renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright made Scottsdale his winter headquarters, and many homes and public buildings in the city and the surrounding area bear Wright's distinctive mark. Scottsdale was one of the first cities in the nation to pass a restrictive sign ordinance limiting the size and appearance of commercial signs, supposedly to reduce urban blight; the chief result, however, has been to make one's destination hard to spot from a fast moving car. The city also championed the use of fluorescent greenish yellow as the color of fire engines instead of the ubiquitous red. Ironically, for all its wealth, Scottsdale seems incapable of developing an effective sewer and drainage system to mitigate flash floods caused by sudden heavy downpours that visit the Phoenix area especially in summer. The church is located on Cactus Road, near Scottsdale Road, in a primarily residential neighborhood.
The cast: The Revd Poulos Ghozairan, pastor. Father Ghozairan was vested in alb, girdle, stole and white cope. There were four young altar boys in albs and girdles. To the left of the altar sat about a dozen men vested in alb, girdle, and what looked like a red deacon's stole draped over the left breast, wound once around the neck, and then draped over the left shoulder blade. To the right were a choir of four teenaged girls vested in purple gowns and white choir scarves, a layman in street clothes (the keyboardist), and a nun in what appeared to be a Dominican habit.
The date & time: Seventh Sunday of Summer, August 10, 2008, 10.30am.

What was the name of the service?
Mass in Aramaic.

How full was the building?
The building can hold about 500 and was completely full. Extra chairs had been set out. The congregation were mostly young to middle aged, with many teenagers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. No ushers or greeters were in evidence.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes wooden pew with plush upholstery on the seat and back.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Some women in the front pews were reciting prayers in Arabic. One of the prayers may have been the litany of the saints, judging from the repetitive response. People entered quietly. The altar party just sort of sauntered into place there was no entrance procession.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" in Aramaic.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
Chaldean Prayers and Hymns, in Aramaic, Syriac, Arabic and English. I had trouble making sense of it until I realized it was meant to be read from back to front.

What musical instruments were played?
The chant was unaccompanied. The choir sang three numbers accompanied by a digital keyboard using (at various times) organ, piano, string and percussion stops.

Did anything distract you?
There were many latecomers, including one robed choir girl. People entered as late as the sermon, and wandered around trying to find seats while Father was preaching. The family in front of me seemed more interested in visiting among themselves than in paying attention to the liturgy. And I couldn't find my Mystery Worshipper calling card I had folded it into my notebook before setting out from home, but when I went to pull it out, it wasn't there. I looked in my pocket, on the seat, on the floor around me, but it had simply vanished!

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The Chaldean rite dates from the fourth century and is in Aramaic. There is some disagreement over whether the dialect used is the same one that Jesus spoke; the Chaldeans believe that it is. The text was somewhat familiar and yet not so, and in a different order from that of the Tridentine mass. There were some directives from the deacon to "stand with reverence and pay attention" as in the liturgies of St Basil and St John Chrysostom. The Lord's Prayer was recited at least four times. The celebrant faced east, and almost the entire mass was chanted a non-Western sounding chant, like what you would hear in a mosque. After some lengthy preliminary prayers and a censing of the altar and congregation, the Old and New Testament readings for the day were given, with the gospel book being censed the entire time the gospel was read. The thurible was also swung during the entire eucharistic prayer, from the sanctus to the "little elevation", which was the only time the priest walked behind the altar to face the congregation. There was no elevation as the sacred elements were consecrated. The peace was exchanged by the receiver clasping his hands around the right hand of the giver; the altar boys gave the peace to the first person in each pew, who passed it down the pew. We received communion under the species of bread only, and on the tongue.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
11 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Ghozairan seemed to speak clearly and did not refer to notes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
No idea it was in Arabic. I heard the word Allah about a dozen times.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Worshipping in the very same language that Jesus spoke.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
All right, now. The teenaged choir girls sang with that raw, strident, almost-on-pitch tone so characteristic of the, erm, untrained voice. At the sanctus, at communion, and as a recessional, they sang some modern sounding tunes, one of which resembled "Old MacDonald Had a Farm," while the digital keyboardist drew his piano, string and percussion stops. It all sounded very out of place compared to the chant of the mass. A digital keyboard may be fine for a rock band, but it has to be played very, very well in order to carry itself off in church. And that wasn't the case here, I'm afraid.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. There was no recessional; the altar party just sort of wandered off while the choir sang. People left. A gentleman asked me where the restroom was. "I don't know," I replied. "What do you know?" he retorted. Recognizing the line from the classic cult film Eraserhead, I replied as did the character Henry in that film: "Oh, I don't know much of anything." Whereupon the gentleman gave up on me.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. As people left the building, they tended to congregate in groups just outside the door, making it difficult for the rest of us to leave. I elbowed my way through and stood around in the parking lot awhile before heading for my car.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
1 – How could I? This seems to be a closed ethnic community that shows no interest whatsoever in welcoming outsiders.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. Rather, I felt embarrassed to have crashed their little private club.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Where, oh where, did my calling card go?
 
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