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2110: St Elizabeth Ann Seton, Woodbridge, Virginia, USA
St Elizabeth Ann Seton, Woodbridge, Virginia (Exterior)
Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe.
The church: St Elizabeth Ann Seton, Woodbridge, Virginia, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Diocese of Arlington.
The building: An unremarkable red brick building from the outside, especially on the side where the entrance is. The inside is large, bright and modern, with the altar positioned along one of the longer walls and pews arranged in a semicircle around the altar. Red and white poinsettias sat in front of the altar, with Christmas trees and wreaths on either side.
The church: They support a large number of ministries well described on their website. Of special note is a charismatic prayer group, Mother of Joy, for people who feel they have stopped growing spiritually, and a nursing ministry that seeks to integrate the mind, body and soul to promote good health.
The neighborhood: Woodbridge, in northern Virginia close to Washington, DC, is named after a wooden toll bridge that in colonial times carried the Kingís Highway (modern day Route 1) across the Occoquan River. Composed primarily of farmland until the 1980s, Woodbridge experienced rapid growth as the century waned and is today primarily a bedroom community for commuters into Washington. As such, it is well served by rail and highway connections. Woodbridge is home to the Potomac Mills Mall, the first of a nationwide chain of huge, sprawling factory outlet shopping centers. The church is located at the end of a quiet upper-middle-class residential street.
The cast: The Revd David Meng, pastor, celebrated mass. The Revd James Searby, parochial vicar, helped with the distribution of communion. Music was under the direction of Jon Laird. A girl in her late teens whose name was not given served as leader of song; and crucifer, acolytes, master of ceremonies, lectors and intercessor were likewise not named.
The date & time: Christmas Day, December 25, 2010, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
The Nativity of the Lord: Mass During the Day.

How full was the building?
The church seats 1200, according to their website, and it was about 99 per cent full, with only one or two empty seats.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. There were no greeters or ushers on duty.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – wooden pew with green upholstery.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The teenage leader of song stood artlessly hunched over a lectern looking down at her music as she sang several Christmas tunes – which were different from those listed in the service booklet. Iíll have more to say about her in a moment. When she was done, the organist improvised a medley of carols – again, different from the organ prelude that was advertised. People entered quietly and found seats.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good morning (mutter mutter mutter)" – sorry, but I couldnít understand most of what the young woman (who turned out to be the intercessor) said. I think it was something to the effect of "Welcome to St Elizabeth Ann Seton Church. Please turn off your cell phones."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A service booklet containing the propers for the three Christmas masses and for the week that followed, along with hymn numbers. In the pews were the hardbound hymnal Glory and Praise and the paperback Companion Missal, but they were not used.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ and trumpet. The electronic organ, an Allen, sounded good and was played well.

Did anything distract you?
The intercessor spoke English with an accent that I couldnít place.

St Elizabeth Ann Seton, Woodbridge, Virginia (Interior)
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A novus ordo mass carried off with more dignity than what one usually sees nowadays. It began with an entrance procession of crucifer, two acolytes, and a master of ceremonies, each wearing a surplice of proper length and a black cassock (and, Iím happy to say, black haberdashery), and the celebrant in alb and white chasuble. It was, however, the fastest entrance procession Iíve ever seen – they veritably galloped down the aisle while we sang "Adeste Fideles" – all the verses of it! Laymen gave the Old and New Testament readings, and there was no gospel ceremony – the book was not carried to the pulpit but was already resting there. There were bells at all the proper moments, but no incense. Richard Proulxís A Community Mass supplied the ordinaries (yes!), and I believe the psalm was sung to a Gelineau setting. We sang traditional Christmas carols – again, all the verses – but Iíd say congregational participation was light to nonexistent. The parochial vicar, wearing cassock, surplice and stole, assisted at communion, and the acolytes held patens under the chins of communicants as we received the consecrated bread (no wine).

Exactly how long was the sermon?
6 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Father Meng spoke in a friendly, relatively chatty style. He lost me, though, when he tried to tie in the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to the Christmas message. Although the imagery is interesting, I donĎt believe very many scholars regard that as a Messianic allegory.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Advent flew by, didnít it? What an exciting season: Santa Claus, no school, presents. Christ came down to give us the gift of life, and continues to give himself in the eucharist. In return, we give God the gift of our lives, in the hope of eternal life. God is calling (at that very moment a cell phone went off, to much laughter).

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
I give this parish credit for bringing dignity and solemnity to the liturgy – things which, alas, are missing in so many Roman Catholic parishes and, indeed, in churches of other denominations.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But my dear teenage leader of song: Surely the music director has told you about the importance of posture and projection. Are you listening?

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone left rather quickly; I noticed some visiting in small groups but not very much. I was with family and so no one approached us as strangers (indeed, this is my sisterís regular parish). I told Mr Laird, the organist, how much I had enjoyed his playing and asked him if he used traditional music at all masses (he does!). I shook Father Mengís hand and said that I liked what he was doing with liturgy. I asked him if he knew how hard it was to find altar boys wearing black shoes and socks, but he appeared unaware of the difficulty. He seemed more pleased that I had noticed the use of patens at communion.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. We retired to my sisterís house for a delicious Christmas dinner of salad, spaghetti, and lots of wine.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I really liked what I saw here. They take their liturgy seriously and there seems to be a lively community spirit at work in the parish.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
"God is calling" (ring ring).
 
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