Corpus Christi celebration, Frankfurt (City Hall)

City Hall Plaza & Cathedral, Frankfurt am Main, Germany


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: City Hall Plaza & Cathedral
Location: Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Date of visit: Thursday, 7 June 2012, 10:00am

The building

Two buildings were involved: The city hall (Rmer), which was the backdrop for the open-air service; and the cathedral, officially the Imperial Cathedral of St Bartholomew. The Rmer has been the city hall for the last 600 years and consists of nine houses connected by a neo-Gothic façade and balcony. The balcony is often used as a stage for state visits and sporting events. One of the rooms, the Kaisersaal (Emperor Hall), is a major tourist attraction. The cathedral (the title is an honorary one, since the bishop's seat is not here) was built in the 14th and 15th centuries on the foundation of an earlier church. From 1356 onwards, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were elected in this church, and from 1562 to 1792, emperors-elect were crowned here. During the Second World War the inner city of Frankfurt was devastated by bombing. Both the cathedral and the Rmer were heavily damaged but were reconstructed after the war.

The church

The pastoral district scheme, not immediately popular with clergy or parishioners, was devised to help congregations work together and share resources in order to compensate for the declining number of priests, members and funds. It is not merely a defensive strategy, but also an attempt to regain the initiative and become more effective in outreach and ministering to the city. A priest has to learn to be an efficient manager; he has severely limited time for personal contacts with parishioners and has to serve several churches. On the other hand, the shortage of priests leads to a more active role for the laity. The Stadtdekan (Dean), the Revd Dr Johannes zu Eltz, is responsible for the 150,000 Catholics in Frankfurt.

The neighborhood

The Rmerberg, which is the name of the plaza in front of the city hall, has been referred to as the "living room" (gute Stube) of Frankfurt. Here, in 1933, Nazi students burned the books of authors of whom the Fascist regime did not approve. After the war, the Rmerberg became a popular place for open-air events, political demonstrations, festivals, etc. The oldest Christmas market in Germany, established in 1393, is set up here each year. When US President John F. Kennedy visited Frankfurt in 1963, he spoke to 150,000 people in the wide-open space that the heavy bombing of World War II had created at this spot. In the 1980s the houses that had formerly stood on the east side of the plaza were reconstructed, restoring the historical shape and size of the Rmerberg.

The cast

Stadtdekan Johannes zu Eltz was the principal celebrant and preacher. He was assisted by 15 priests (if I counted correctly) who spoke the words of institution simultaneously and distributed the eucharist among the congregation. Music was provided by Collegium Vocale Liebfrauen plus wind instrument ensemble and keyboard, directed by the district cantor, Peter Reulein. The organist in the cathedral was Andreas Boltz.

What was the name of the service?

Festive Service on Corpus Christi with Procession and Benediction

How full was the building?

The Rmerberg was almost full. My guess is that at least 2000 people attended the open-air service. There was picnic bench seating for about 300, with about 100 additional reserved bench seats. The cathedral was overflowing – the seats were all taken and the aisles were packed in a way that the fire department would not have allowed had they known about it. I was trapped in a side aisle and could not see the entire congregation, so I can make no exact count of the size. In the state of Hesse, Corpus Christi is a public holiday, which allows the Catholic Church to hold well-attended services on this date.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No personal welcome. People handing out the worship programs did so silently.

Was your pew comfortable?

My standing place in the Rmerberg was comfortable; I had room to move my elbows. I was expecting to bake in the sun or be drenched in a downpour (the usual options of a German summer), but the weather was pleasantly mild. By contrast, my standing place in the cathedral was not comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Stunning. At 9.45 the enormous Gloriosa bell of the cathedral started ringing. This bell, which in the days before electric mechanization allegedly required 18 people to get it ringing, produces a deep, solemn, spine-tingling sound, as though it were ushering in the Last Judgment. (On quiet Christmas Eve nights I have heard this bell clearly from a distance of two miles.) Five minutes later the other bells joined in. The air seemed to be vibrating. Just before the service started, there was a long and colourful procession of representatives of Catholic organizations and orders, including young girls in their white first-communion dresses and about 16 priests.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

A printed program provided the words and musical notes for the liturgical singing and the hymns.

What musical instruments were played?

Wind instruments and keyboard at the open-air service. After the procession, the cathedral organ.

Did anything distract you?

There was one distraction after another: pedestrians passing by, the aroma of cooking from a nearby restaurant, the fervent clapping of tourists showing their appreciation, and even a light rainfall at one point. I was probably a distraction to the other worshippers because of my note-taking and my moving around to get the best angle for a photo. I must say that this Catholic congregation was more disciplined and, thus, provided fewer distractions than the Protestant congregation assembled at this same place for an open-air service ten days previously on Pentecost Monday.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

The service was formal and festive, but not solemn or stiff. The readings and prayers were in several languages. Some parts of the service were in Latin. The opening hymn, the well-known "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty" was sung simultaneously in German, English, Czech, Slovene, Italian, French and Spanish.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

8 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

7 – The Stadtdekan spoke lucidly and concisely and was easy to listen to. He said that "false shepherds are as strong as Rambo, as good-looking as Brad Pitt, as charitable as Bill Gates." He also said that "they know the Bible and theology as well as ..." but here he broke off, not wanting to name any well-known theologian, which produced cheerful laughter within the congregation.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The focal point of the sermon was the opening words of a Corpus Christi hymn (sung later): "Your Saviour, your Teacher, your Shepherd and Nourisher." The preacher contrasted false shepherds, who are antichrists, from the one True Shepherd. False shepherds are deceptively attractive, but ultimately they enslave their followers and drive them into fear and loneliness. The True Shepherd speaks to our hearts, because our hearts were created for him. Because we are not only spirit, he gives us food from heaven for our bodies. The false shepherds feed upon their flock so that they can live; the True Shepherd gives himself as food for his followers so that they may live.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I do not like open-air services because I always feel like a distracted spectator. But for the first time in my life – despite the fact that I am a Protestant – I was really involved and able to participate with heartfelt concentration. Maybe it had to do with the concentrated attention of the massive congregation that surrounded me. Some services convey the message "It's all about us." The liturgical discipline of this service subtly conveyed the heavenly message "Its all about worshipping God."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

The conclusion of this service was in the cathedral. We were packed in like sardines in a tin can, so that I felt trapped and claustrophobic. But the real descent into the abyss occurred at the organ postlude, Olivier Messiaens Livre du Saint-Sacrement. There is probably no music in the "other place" but if there is, then undoubtedly the Prince of Darkness would enjoy this postlude. To my untrained ear it evoked feelings of chaos, terror, disintegration, being hopelessly lost.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

In the mob scene inside and outside the church there was no possibility of anyone taking notice of a single person looking lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

Outside the cathedral there were stands offering a wide variety of foods, drinks and information. There were picnic tables and benches. It looked inviting and colourful.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

2 – This service was an exception, as it involved several congregations. However, as a Protestant, I know that I am not invited to the eucharist in a Roman Catholic church. I realise that there is precise and thorough reasoning behind every doctrine, and I wouldn't want the Church to give up its unique identity for the sake of a superficial communion fellowship with Protestants. But I could never feel at home in a Catholic church.

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

That's a good question, since this service reminded me of the gap between Catholics and Protestants. The sacred host, which was displayed in the monstrance and which was at the heart of the Corpus Christi procession, was referred to more than once as the "Allerheiligste", which corresponds to the English term "Holy of Holies", the sanctuary in the Jerusalem temple that was regarded as God's dwelling place. I do believe in the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic bread and wine, but as a Protestant I cannot refer to a consecrated host as the Holy of Holies. But the schism between Catholics and Protestants is, in my opinion, something positive because it keeps us from becoming complacent. As long as there are schisms, the uncompromising search for unity in truth should never cease. So in this sense the service made me glad to be a Christian.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Being in a Roman Catholic open-air service, celebrating a doctrine that I cannot embrace. I should have felt like a foreign body and should have been coldly detached. Amazingly, I felt entirely at home and enjoyed the service thoroughly until the procession began and I realized that I could not march in a procession honouring a doctrine I did not believe, and so had to withdraw from the marching congregation.

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