Mystery Worshipper: Aggie
Church: Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar
Location: Zaragoza, Spain
Date of visit: Wednesday, 23 February 2011, 7:00pm
A large Baroque style basilica that was built in the 16th century to replace the original cathedral, which was badly damaged by battles during the medieval period and finally destroyed by fire. There has been a shrine church on the site of the present-day basilica since AD44. Many of the basilica's domes and spires on the roof were not fully completed until the early 20th century. Inside, the basilica has a nave and two aisles, and many of the ceiling vaults were painted by Spanish artist Francisco Goya. Near the west entrance is the quire and the magnificent organ by the world-renowned Johannes Klais Orgelbau of Bonn, Germany (which, alas, remained silent). The high altar, where pontifical mass is celebrated on Sundays and feast days, is Gothic in design. There are numerous chapels within the basilica, but in the east end, beyond the high altar, is La Santa Capilla (the Holy Chapel) which houses the shrine of Our Lady of the Pillar, and where low mass is celebrated frequently during the day and evening on weekdays.
One of the world's most important Marian shrines, Our Lady of the Pillar is venerated throughout the Hispanic world. According to legend, St James the Apostle came to Spain to spread the gospel. When he reached Zaragoza, he was very disheartened to find that the people there did not want to know. As he sat crying on the banks of the River Ebro, the Virgin Mary came to him carried by angels on a pillar of jasper. She told him to build a shrine to her, and gave him the pillar of jasper and a wooden statue of herself to place on top of it. St James duly built the shrine, and his campaign to evangelise Spain was successful.
Zaragoza is probably the only city and archdiocese I have heard of that boasts two cathedrals, both within a stone's throw of each other: The Basilica del Pilar and La Seo (literally "the See" in the Aragonese dialect). Both buildings share co-cathedral status in the archdiocese. The Basilica del Pilar is situated on the banks of the River Ebro in the old quarter, or Casco Antiguo. Outside the basilica is the large pedestrianised Plaza del Pilar, where various other historic buildings are situated, including La Seo, the archbishop's palace, and La Lonja (the medieval silk exchange, now a museum and gallery). On the opposite side of the plaza are the obligatory tacky souvenir shops, as well as bars and restaurants. The plaza is the most visited and touristy place in the city, although most of the tourists are Spaniards from other parts of Spain, as well as French and Italian.
An unnamed priest.
What was the name of the service?Misa en la Santa Capilla (Mass in the Holy Chapel).
How full was the building?
It was full of tourists wandering around, as well as pilgrims praying, lighting candles and venerating the Holy Pillar. About 20 or 30 or so people attended the mass, although it was hard to keep count of them. Not everyone stayed until the end of mass, whilst others drifted in half-way through and then drifted off again.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. No one took much notice of anyone else.
Was your pew comfortable?
Fairly. It was a long wooden pew, although the hard wooden kneeler was uncomfortable.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
It was disappointingly and annoyingly noisy. There were lots of tourists walking around the basilica chattering loudly, mobile phones jangling, and I even spotted a few people having loud mobile phone conversations. All this despite the signs asking visitors to keep silence and respect the dignity of the place.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The priest speaking in Spanish asked a group of children, who might have been catechumens preparing for their first communion, to come forward and help him put the manta or cape on Our Lady of Pilar. As they did this, the priest said a prayer invoking her aid and blessing on the people of the city of Zaragoza.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
What musical instruments were played?
None. I would love to have heard the organ being played, although for the entirety of my four day stay in Zaragoza, there were no organ recitals in the basilica.
Did anything distract you?
People wielding enormous cameras and camcorders barged between the pews of worshippers and pilgrims during the mass as they tried to take pictures and videos of Our Lady of the Pillar from all different angles. I have no problem with this before or after the mass, and indeed I took pictures myself, but I think being so intrusive during the mass is going a little too far.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Formal low mass in modern Spanish, said as the priest faced east.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The beauty of the building, the children being invited to help place the manta on Our Lady, and the devotion of many of the faithful who came to kiss and venerate the Holy Pillar. I think the whole experience might have meant more to me if I were Spanish or from Zaragoza.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It annoyed me a lot that so many people behaved so inconsiderately with their talking and photographing in such as holy and historic place.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I went to look for a priest to bless a rosary I had bought for a friend's baby's baptism. I found a priest sitting in an office in a side-room off one of the chapels, and he looked up and smiled as I approached. He was very friendly and chatty, complimented me on my Spanish (well, sort of), and asked me if I was enjoying my stay. He added that they get very few British tourists; I wondered if he meant that as a good thing or a bad thing. Back out in the nave, however, I don't think there was much chance of looking lost, as there were so many transient visitors to the basilica milling around, and no one took much notice of anyone else anyway.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none, but the streets immediately off the plaza are famous for their excellent tapas bars, where I enjoyed a couple of local delicacies with a glass of Rioja!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I would like to attend mass on the feast day of Our Lady of the Pillar, which I have heard is spectacular, as they really push the boat out and make it a week long celebration with religious services led by the archbishop; choral services, and religious processions and street fairs in the Plaza del Pilar.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The beauty of this historic building.