Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Worship in a Foreign Language

Over the summer I had an opportunity to attend mass in both Portugal and Italy.  While others in the group were going to Etruscan museums and an alabaster workshop I was heading off to church.  I’m not even Catholic, as you know, but I just can’t help it.  As a church musician and someone more than casually interested in liturgy, I want to see how it’s done wherever I go.

In Portugal, where I was on tour with the choir from First Parish Church in Brunswick, the chance to attend mass was built into our performance schedule.  We were at the famous pilgrimage site of Fátima where the choir was scheduled to sing at an afternoon mass at the basilica.  They hold many services everyday and there is a real herd ‘em in, herd ‘em out mentality.  Nonetheless the basilica is truly beautiful and conducive to worship (unlike the newly built auditorium which seats 8,000).

As the previous mass was concluding I was excited to hear organ music, and as I walked in the door I set my eyes on a beautiful free-standing pipe organ near the front of the church.  After playing on electronic things so far on the trip I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a real instrument!  But no…the organist, an ancient little sad man, would not let us use the instrument.  He turned it off and stomped away with the key in hand.  So once again I accompanied the choir on an electronic gizmo.

We finished Mozart’s sublime Ave Verum a minute or so before communion ended and I jumped up to take my place in line.  I brazenly looked the handsome Brazilian priest right in the eye, feeling just a tad guilty for taking communion as a non-Catholic.  But I’m glad I did: that sacrament became the meaningful remembrance for me rather than the rude treatment given us by the organist.

In Italy Bill and I were in the beautiful walled city of Volterra on a Sunday.  After trekking around with a tour guide for a couple of hours I veered off to the cathedral, built oh-so-many hundreds of years ago.  Of course it was stunningly beautiful.  There were no hymnals or service leaflets but there was a pipe organ, of sorts, and an ad-hoc choir. (I was tempted to speak to the priest afterwards and offer my services free for a week or two in exchange for housing in this beautiful town!) And as usual in a Catholic church there were all sorts of people in attendance, from the well-dressed American ex-pats to the local handicapped man.

In both Portugal and Italy I could easily follow the order of mass, even with my limited knowledge of the language.  I could even get an inkling of what was in the sermon; at least I could tell both priests were impassioned about their subject!  But I was freed from the intellectual side of worship, full of many words, and that felt good. Best of all I felt a spiritual bond with those around me, one that transcends culture and language.

So here’s a recommendation:  when travelling in a foreign country, go to a church service.  You will be among the people, away from other tourists and the top sites in your guidebook.  And you will have a clear and unique window into the real life of the place you are visiting.

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