Mystery Worshipper: Paterfamilias
Church: Helsinki Cathedral
Location: Helsinki, Finland
Date of visit: Sunday, 14 October 2012, 10:00am
St Nicholas' Cathedral, Helsinki, was designed by architect Carl Ludvig Engel, who also built the central city square that it dominates. The building was not completed until 1852, 12 years after Engel's death. Its large central dome is surrounded by four smaller domes added later by Ernst Lohrmann, his successor. Notable features are the large zinc statues on the roof, representing the twelve apostles, and (inside the church) large statues of Martin Luther, 16th century Reformation theologian Philip Melancthon, and Mikael Agricola, translator of the Bible into Finnish and regarded as the founder of the written Finnish language. Even with those statues, the cruciform-shaped interior is quite sparsely appointed. The simplified style supposedly reflects Engel's personal view that Lutheranism should, as a religion, foster internal spiritual growth, not appreciation of the external. A quite beautiful painting behind the altar depicting the entombment of Christ is the only concession to such external stimuli.
This is both the cathedral church for the Helsinki Lutheran community and a parish church. It is also a church that plays a larger role for the Finnish nation, still five years away from celebrating its 100th anniversary as an independent country. Concerts are often performed here. Special services are held at the opening and closing of Parliament and on Independence Day. Prominent politicians and cultural leaders are often buried from the cathedral (as, for example, was the famous Finnish composer Jean Sibelius). The University of Helsinki holds its commencement services here. The music programme is quite strong, with an exceptional boys choir. In addition to the weekly Sunday morning eucharist, there are daily prayer services, occasional Taizé services, Anglican morning prayer, and holy communion each Wednesday morning.
The cathedral is at the north end of Senate Square, the site of parades, civic events, New Year's Eve celebrations, and public demonstrations. Other buildings that face the square are the Council of State Palace and a main building of the University of Helsinki. It is in the Helsinki city centre, not far from the Gulf of Finland harbour, outdoor markets, tree-lined boulevards with upscale shops and restaurants. It is only a couple of blocks away from Helsinki's other cathedral, that of the Finnish Orthodox Church.
Pr Mark Saba, church pastor, was celebrant; Pr Suvi-Päivi Koski, cathedral chaplain, preached; Martti Laitinen played the organ; and the Helsinki Philharmonic choir sang under the direction of Dani Juris.
What was the name of the service?Messu Helsingin Tuomiokirkossa (Mass at Helsinki Cathedral).
How full was the building?
The cathedral seats 1,300; I estimate that about 300 were present for this service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. The materials we needed to follow the service were available for pickup on a cart at the church entrance.
Was your pew comfortable?
Gated pews, with no curve in the backs. Padded, but still somewhat uncomfortable. No kneelers. The congregation largely sat for the service, save for standing for the gospel and the Sanctus.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and reverent. The clergy, acolytes and lectors entered a couple of minutes before the organ prelude, reverenced the altar and crossed themselves, and then sat down until the service began.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Isän ja Pojan ja Pyhän Hengen nimeen. Aamen, aamen, aamen." (In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen, amen, amen).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hymnal was Virsikirja, a 1986 publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Finland. There was also a seasonal service leaflet, with the order of service and music for all of the sung parts of the liturgy, and a Sunday leaflet, listing the hymns that would be sung, the readings, and the music selections that the choir would be singing.
What musical instruments were played?
A large pipe organ, built by the Danish organ maker Marcussen in 1967. The facade is all that remains of the original instrument installed in 1846 by the German Walcker firm.
Did anything distract you?
There were large sections of spoken Finnish that I did not understand (especially the sermon and the intercessions). As my eyes wandered around, it was hard to ignore the austere gaze from Mikael Agricola's statue, which, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, "looks like he's graded your theology exam and taken rather a dim view of your prospects."
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
The liturgy was formal, but with nothing that could be considered excessively ceremonial. It was certainly not stuffy. The celebrant was vested in chasuble, preacher in alb and stole, and much of the liturgy was chanted. It was an effective blend of classical Lutheranism and the uniform Western rite. There were three readings, but I gather the Finnish Church has its own lectionary; it was definitely not the Revised Common Lectionary in any of its various manifestations. There were a couple of distinctive features: a hymn preceded the gospel, with "Alleluias" following the reading of the gospel. And in the middle of the intercessions, the spoken prayers stopped, the organ played quietly, and the preacher lighted a taper from the candles on the right side of the altar, then went to the left side and lit a smaller candle there. After the service, this was explained to me as a way of remembering the faithful departed. We received communion kneeling at an altar rail.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
6 – Very low-key. The chaplain stood in the large pulpit and read from a prepared text, rarely using her hands for anything except to turn the pages of her text.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Alas ... I know just four words in Finnish. Finland is officially a bilingual country, but Helsinki is effectively quadri-lingual, as one regularly sees Finnish, Swedish, English, and Russian in signage, restaurant menus and the like. However, the cathedral's worship is exclusively in Finnish. I assume she was preaching on the gospel reading for the day, John 7:40-52 (the people say that Jesus is a prophet, but the Pharisees retort that a prophet does not come out of Galilee).
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
As I knelt for communion, the choir were singing Bogoroditse Devo (Ave Maria/Hail Mary), from Rachmaninoff's Vespers, Op. 37. Such beautiful music, such beautiful singing (tenors as comfortable as could be in the upper part of their register, basses with a rich lower register). All three of the choir's anthems (sung after the first reading, between the creed and the intercessions, and at communion) were exquisite. The polyphonic introit psalm was also chanted in a Russian Orthodox style.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The Finns don't queue, at least not like the British or Americans. Materfamilias and I had noticed this in other situations as well, but I was quite surprised as we went to communion that, well ... in the end it all worked out.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Everyone remained in their pews while the organist played a chorale-prelude by Sweelinck. As soon as the postlude was over, I approached the woman sitting in front of me and asked about the candle-lighting bit during the prayers. After she explained that, we chatted a bit; it turned out that she was not a regular worshipper there, but lived in the suburbs, and was with a group of friends visiting the cathedral.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If only it weren't for the language barrier. If I were ever to live in Finland, I would probably choose to attend Sunday morning Anglican services at another parish, but keep in touch with my Lutheran sympathies by coming back to the cathedral once a month or so. But the liturgy and music were both beautifully done.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Two things: receiving communion during Rachmaninoff's beautiful anthem, and the candle lighting during the intercessions.