Thursday, November 30, 2006

Adoration and Ad-Libbing: Mass at St. Peter's in Bandra

St. Peter's, the Jesuit-run parish on Hill Road in Bandra is quite the sacramental mill. Masses on the hour every hour from 6:00 am to 10:00 am on Sunday, and then two in the evening, giving the priests the afternoon to recharge their batteries. I suspect this is the case at most of the big churches in this largely Catholic suburb of Bombay.

As I arrive (via Turner Road, Hill Road is temporarily one way, with one side dug up as part of a controversial road widening plan. More on that in a separate post.), the announcements are being read at the end of the 9:00 am Mass. I stand outside in the "compound" (a large open dirt field that serves as the playground of the adjacent St. Stanilaus School), on the side of the church near the sacristy, waiting for my friend S., who's singing in the choir at the 10:00 am Mass. A few worshipers stand outside, the entrances, the so called "outstanding Catholics" who barely make it into the doors of church for Mass, except for Communion, and who disappear immediately thereafter, and who are found in every church I've been to in India. Near the sacristy, a gaggle of kids streams out noisily from their catechism classes in the school, all bearing paper plates with green and yellow bits of colored paper stuck on them. "Oh dear, fluff has made it here too!"

A large fold-out presentation board displays a variety of beautiful photographs of the exterior and interior of the church. One caption mentions that the very ornate baroque high-altar was donated by General Franco of Spain. I'm not entirely certain that's necessarily a thing to be proud of. However, it's a reminder of the Spanish Jesuits who labored in these fields in the late 19th and through the 20th century, and the fruit of whose labor the Church is still reaping. A few elderly Spanish fathers can still be spotted in the parish.

At 9:57, Mass lets out, and within three minutes, the 9:00 am crowd has melted away, and the 10:00 am folks are in their pews. The church isn't too terribly crowded and I easily find a good spot up near the front, i.e. one near a fan. Bombay Novembers are pretty steamy. Mass starts with a procession in, two altar girls in red cassocks and white surplices, a lector carrying the Lectionary (I thought the new GIRM proscribed this?) and the celebrant. No music. There's no sign of any choir, except for S. My friend looks around a bit flummoxed for a second and then announces an opening hymn which the congregation picks up with gusto. By the time the procession reaches the altar, nearly a dozen choirmembers have appeared and clustered around the mikes up front. An entrance procession is itself a rarity in my experience in India. Normally the priest and servers tend to appear from the sacristy up front and disappear there after Mass as well.

The homily starts off pretty decently -- a reflection based on an image from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, of the standard (as in a royal battle flag) of Satan versus the standard of Christ the King. One thinks only of the self, of getting ahead, of acquiring wealth and fame. The other focuses on the other, on selfless giving and so on. One "gives in" to whatever the world throws, the other is about "giving" of onself in service to others. There follow many illustrations of this difference. Then, I found myself thinking, "well, Christianity doesn't really sound that attractive, does it? It seems it's all about denying oneself, and this is all difficulty and pain and being miserable." Well, it *is* all about denying oneself. I guess, what I found missing was any notion of the joy that this brings, about this being the key to true happiness. Why on earth would any person follow the "standard of Christ" so described? "Yes I Know it's difficult." But why do it then? I wish the homilist had expounded on that a little bit. I suppose I don't respond that well to homilies that simply harangue us about how difficult it all is.

The offertory hymn, "In bread we bring you Lord," is one of the few that I've heard in India that I really like. It used to be sung pretty much every Sunday at the Cathedral of the Holy Name, when I first started attending Mass regularly.

As the Eucharistic prayer starts, the celebrant says, "please remain standing during the consecration." Um. That's new -- every time I've been to St. Peter's, we've knelt. After the Sanctus, a few scattered congregants kneel, out of sheer habit it seems. Others look around a bit nervously, as if it to say, "Did I hear that? Did he say not to kneel?" The celebrant, however, nods to the altar servers, who kneel. With an almost palpable relief, the entire congregation follows. Vox populi.

And then came that moment that it seems is simply unavoidable in my experience of liturgy in India. A "what on earth?" moment of utter disbelief. The Eucharistic Prayer was almost completely ad-libbed. Except (thank heavens!) for the prayer of consecration. I think it was patterned on the Canon of the Mass (Eucharistic Prayer I), since the prayer for the Pope preceded the consecration. The rest of it was unrecognizable. After the consecration at one point he prayed for the unity of all Christians, and for believers of other faiths. Nothing wrong with that at all. There's a place for that in the Mass -- during the Intercessions. Why bring it into the Eucharistic Prayer? Why distort, no, completely obliterate the rhythm and pattern and symbolism of the prayer itself? And why on earth ad lib pretty much the whole darn thing? To make it more relevant? In some hope that the variety might get people to pay attention? Because one's own created prayer, however heartfelt, is better than the Church's? And really, if one wants to be so creative, why stop short at the consecration? Surely the heart of the prayer is the one most deserving some kind of relevant updating? I've not encountered "creativity" that is so flagrant in its disregard for the norms at all in the US, anywhere. Mentally, I throw my arms up and shake my head and try to calm myself down and focus on prayer again.

As the congregation lines up for Communion (this is indeed a positive development. Normally, people rush up the aisle as if at a bus stand!), a stray dog wanders in from the outside, strolls up one aisle then down another and curls up near one of the side exits. No one seems to notice. Literally -- a few seconds later it yelps and bolts as someone steps on its tail!

After Communion the announcements are read to the noticeably thinner congregation (some Catholic customs it seems are universal! :-)), including the response of the parish to the threat of the municipal authorities to forcibly acquire some of the church's land (separate post on that). The banns of two couples are read. "If anyone knows of any reason, civil or ecclesiastical, why these two people should not wed, they are duty bound to inform their parish priest." I've never heard that said in a parish in the US. It's quite common over here though.

And since it's the Feast of Christ the King, there's Adoration starting immediately after Mass, with special meditations on the hour until Benediction at 5:00 pm. Ordinarily, there would be a procession around the parish, but for the dug up road outside. One of the elderly Spanish Jesuits enters from the side with a monstrance, places the Luna in it, and climbs up to perch it at the top of the high altar, as the server incense the Sacrament and the congregation kneels.

I spend a few minutes in thankful prayer, thankful especially for my father's successful surgery and rapid recovery, before departing.

And, come to think of it, I doubt that there would be a parish in the US that would combine such deep piety, and Adoration with a cooked up Eucharistic Prayer! [St. Peter's is, incidentally, the church where I was baptized.


St. Elizabeth of Cayce said...

And once again we ask: When did the Mass become an occasion for improv?

Glad to see you had a chance to spend some time in Adoration. It certainly puts so many other petty annoyances into perspective.

Also glad to see you finally got access to "the outside world." Looks like you had a lot you needed to say. ;-}

Prayers continue for your Dad, who is sounding like a trooper.

Heather said...

I love when you post stories about places you've gone and done things. They are so interesting! I wonder if the adlib is a regular occurence at that church. You should ask your friend. Also, fluff is good because it helps kids remember things (I promise). Best of luck with the rest of recovery for your father and your family. We love and miss you over here.