Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen
Location: Mexico City, Mexico
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 July 2013, 12:00am
Begun in 1547 and finished in 1813, in a blend of baroque, neoclassic, and Mexican churrigueresque architectural styles, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Asunción de la Santísima Virgen María a los Cielos is the oldest and largest church in Latin America. It is massive so much so that it has sunk several feet into the ground under its enormous weight, a fact that one clearly notices as one walks about the pavement outside the building. The east and west bell towers hold rings of eighteen and seven bells, respectively. In 1947, a bell ringer was killed when one of the bells struck him in the head. The bell was "punished" by having its clapper removed, and was known thereafter as la castigada ("the punished one"). Upon entering the cathedral, one is overwhelmed by the elaborate decor of the five naves and sixteen chapels, each with its own ornate altar, altarpiece, retablos, paintings, furniture and sculptures that vie to outdo the others. There are two principal altars in addition to the high altar: the Altar of Forgiveness (Altar de Perdón) (first photo below), at the front of the nave, before which persons condemned by the Spanish Inquisition were brought to beg for divine mercy before being executed; and the Altar of Kings (Altar de los Reyes), behind the high altar, flanked by statues representing canonized royalty (Edward the Confessor, Margaret of Scotland, Helena of Constantinople, Elisabeth of Hungary, etc.).
According to the Archdiocese's website, the cathedral seeks to be "the leaven of Christian life among the residents of the city, to help them live in communion with God and with the men and women of our time." To that end, they offer a variety of administrative, social, pastoral and evangelical outreaches. One mass each Sunday is in Braille. The cathedral is also active in the cultural life of the city, sponsoring a full program of concerts and other artistic events. At the opposite extreme of human affairs, the cathedral has over the years been a venue for protests concerning a variety of social issues. In 1926, in reaction to the Mexican government's harsh anticlerical policies of the time, Pope Pius XI ordered the cathedral to be closed, not allowing it to reopen until 1930. In more recent years, the cathedral bells were rung to protest the Mexican Supreme Court's finding in 2008 that the Constitution included no legal impediment to abortion.
The cathedral dominates the Zócalo, Mexico City's huge central plaza, a popular gathering place all throughout the country's history. Its immediate neighbors are the National Palace, the seat of the executive branch of the Mexican government; and the Federal District Buildings, housing the government of Mexico City. Off the Zócalo run several trendy side streets, some open to pedestrians only, lined with chic boutiques and cafes.
His Eminence Norberto Cardinal Rivera Carrera, Archbishop of Mexico, and two unnamed concelebrating priests officiated at mass. The Cardinal Archbishop was attended by two deacons and two masters of ceremonies plus a retinue of four other priests in full eucharistic vestiture; crucifer; acolytes; thurifer and boat boy. All of the clergy were vested in green; the masters of ceremonies in surplices and black cassocks (additionally, one wore a vimpa); and the others in purple cassocks. Lay readers wore dark grey suits, white shirts, and green ties (men) or green scarves (women).
What was the name of the service?Misa (Mass).
How full was the building?
Packed to the rafters - standing room only.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Sort of. The main nave is separated from the rest of the cathedral by a gated railing. An usher was stationed at the gate to separate out the tourists from the worshippers. He questioned only those who looked suspicious, including, alas, Miss Amanda, but he let me pass when I told him I was there for mass.
Was your pew comfortable?
I've sat in better plain wooden pews; I've sat in worse. Interestingly, the pews were not bolted to the floor.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
When I arrived, a baptism service was in progress in one of the side chapels for well over 200 families who had brought their children to be baptized, some of whom had suffered under the pain of original sin for several years, judging from their apparent age. Tourists were reverently milling about the various aisles. An earlier mass was still in progress at the main altar, but a queue had formed at the gate. The usher let in whoever wanted to pass (and whoever passed his scrutiny) and we stood where we could find room. As that mass let out, the standees scrambled to find seats, and they quickly filled up. I was lucky enough to find a seat very close to the front, next to an impeccably dressed old Mexican lady (about whom more in a moment). A woman was mopping the floor in front of the Cardinal Archbishop's throne. Everyone sat in silence. The organist played some Frescobaldi pieces. The cathedral bells were rung.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo." The entrance procession took all of 15 minutes to traverse the center aisle, as the Cardinal Archbishop kept stopping at various pews to shake the hand of anyone who proffered one. The thurible billowed more smoke than a locomotive. The organ was playing and all the cathedral bells were ringing - all 25 of them (or 24, minus La Castigata). Pandemonium - divine pandemonium! I was thrilled.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A handout containing the Gloria, Credo, intercessions, Lord's Prayer, and all the readings for the day, all in Spanish.
What musical instruments were played?
The cathedral's pipe organ, which sounded wonderful. There was a small choir - I don't know how many, as I couldn't see them. But the congregation sang lustily.
Did anything distract you?
The boat boy was the oldest boat boy I've ever seen - an elderly gentleman. Flash bulbs kept going off despite conspicuous large-lettered signs that read NO FLASH in English and Spanish. A lady next to me kept fanning herself with a hand fan. And, wouldn't you know it, someone's cell phone went off right at the consecration.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Very stiff upper lip, but done with grace and dignity to perfection. Everyone knew their role and exactly how to carry it out. Incense billowed copiously, but alas, the cathedral is so vast that the smoke rose to the ceiling before it could waft out into the congregation. The cathedral bells were rung at the consecration. At communion time, the ushers carried white circular signs on tall poles with the letters IHS to the points at which eucharistic ministers would be stationed; we were instructed to line up at the sign closest to us. The Cardinal Archbishop was among those distributing communion, but when his ciborium was empty he returned to his throne to sit out the remainder of the ceremony. The little old Mexican lady and I were among those who received from his hand. She remarked to me later how good it was to have had that experience when so many others couldn't.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Cardinal Rivera preached from his throne using a prepared text that was subsequently posted on the archdiocese's website. However, he looked up frequently from his text to ad-lib on his remarks.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The Cardinal Archbishop preached on the day's readings: Genesis 18:1-10 )Abraham shows hospitality to three visitors_; Colossians 1:24-28 (God has commissioned Paul as a servant to spread his Word); and Luke 10:38-42 (Mary and Martha entertain Jesus). Hospitality is a virtue that distinguishes us from the rest of creation. It isn't easy to practice hospitality in these modern times, but God willing, we can always discover new ways to do so. We are all guests in God's creation, traveling along the road to our eternal home. If we open ourselves to practicing hospitality, God will teach us new ways to do so, as Jesus taught Mary and Martha. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve. There is no prayer that speaks against hospitality. Yes, we should pray that God's kingdom may come, but we should also pray that humility and service may permeate all our activities. That is "the better part."
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The splendor of the cathedral and the priceless art treasures it contains is indescribable. And the cathedral staff handle the hordes of tourists so very well. I found almost the entire experience to be heavenly.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At communion time, everyone jostled and shoved their way through the aisles to queue up behind the circular IHS signs. The otherwise excellent cathedral staff need to devise a better way to handle communion. And the music, while several levels above the Singing Nun Goes South of the Border stuff you hear at Spanish masses in the United States, was nevertheless somewhat disappointing. There was plenty of time during the long entrance procession for some Gregorian chant or Victoria motets, but alas, we didn't get any. According to the handout, they do have a schola cantorum, but they sing only at the 9.00 mass each day.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After Cardinal Rivera gave his final blessing, everyone broke into applause. The Cardinal Archbishop kissed the altar, waved good-bye, and sort of sauntered off the altar with the rest of the altar party. There was no recessional. We all had to exit quickly, as the crowd for the next mass was already jostling for places as we had done for this mass. The little old Mexican lady said "Hasta la vista" to me and dashed off.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none. I retired to a cafe on one of the side streets off the Zócalo where I enjoyed a dish of huevos divorciados - four fried eggs, two in red sauce and two in green sauce, separated by a row of taco chips smothered in cheese. Very tasty.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
10 – Hey, if I lived in Mexico City I'd be here every Sunday for sure! I'd love to hear the schola cantorum.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes! Yes! Yes!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Quite a bit: the divine pandemonium of the bells, the incense thick enough to fog in an airport, the altar choreography done to perfection, the little old Mexican lady wishing me Hasta la vista.