Mystery Worshipper: Stu Pormundu
Church: St Laurence
Location: Cambridge, England
Date of visit: Saturday, 7 October 2017, 12:00am
Catholic life in Cambridge is rather overshadowed by the beautiful cathedral-like Church of Our Lady and the English Martyrs. St Laurence, the "other" Catholic parish in central Cambridge, was formed in 1947 and the church was built in 1958. It is an unprepossessing building with arches of pre-formed wood, brick walls, and pleasingly large plain glass windows. The sanctuary is raised on a small platform and, like the rest of the church, is bare almost to the point of starkness apart from a large crucifix on the east wall. An attempt has been made to bring colour by commissioning a tapestry in two pieces either side of the crucifix, on the theme of sowing and reaping. I thought it was not a success both in style and material it seemed out of keeping with the classical crucifix. It was good, though, to see the Blessed Sacrament tabernacle in the traditional central position. To the right of the sanctuary there was a keyboard with seats for a choir. There was step-free access to the church. The toilet I used was not adapted for disabled users. I inquired and was told that there was one around the corner. It would be a tight manoeuvre with a wheelchair, but on inquiry I was assured that it was possible.
This is an active parish. Apart from the vigil mass, each Sunday there are three masses, two in the church and one in the school, and another one in a mass centre. There is also a periodic youth mass called Ablaze. The parish website lists 25 groups and activities, including discussion groups, a lunch club, meet and chat, and justice and peace. There is a link with a church in Zimbabwe. This weekend the annual collection was taking place for the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development (CAFOD) and in front of the altar was a barrow with an attractive display of fruits and vegetables, linking the collection with harvest thanksgiving.
St Laurence is about a 30 minute walk from Magdalen Bridge and the colleges of Cambridge. It is a largely middle-class suburban area of proud home-owners. The northern edge of the parish in the Orchard Park area is more densely populated, with the development of town houses and apartments. Further beyond is a ring of science parks and research institutions that you would expect given Cambridge’s status as a world class university city.
The parish priest, the Revd Patrick Cleary, was celebrant and preacher, assisted by unnamed servers and lectors (for the lectors, see more below). The parish also has a Dominican assistant priest and a permanent deacon. A transitional deacon is to be priested on 8 December.
What was the name of the service?Vigil Mass
How full was the building?
Difficult to see without craning my neck, but I would reckon probably three-quarters full with around 150 people. Most were seniors, as is usually the case with a vigil mass. There were some children, both infants and babes in arms, and at least one pram. It was not as ethnically mixed as you would find in, for example, London, but I noticed a strong Filipino element.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
It was a gloomy evening with relentless rain. The smile and warm words of the welcomer were a refreshing antidote.
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Subdued hubbub, with people darting about doing last-minutes tasks and (tut!) not always honouring the Blessed Sacrament when passing in front of it.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
Before the service began, I saw an elderly lady go up briefly to the keyboard and I assumed she would return to play for us. Therefore I was startled when recorded organ music boomed into the church and the congregation rose to sing the first hymn. After that the celebrant began: "In the name of the Father ..."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The readings were in Parish Book Year A published by McCrimmons; the hymns were from the Laudate hymnal.
What musical instruments were played?
The elderly lady returned to play for the responsorial psalm and the gospel acclamation. Otherwise, we had the ghostly music. I had the impression that the congregation sang better when it was an organ recording, less well when it was guitar and flute.
Did anything distract you?
Above and to my left was a statue of St Laurence, the parish’s patron saint, holding the gridiron on which he was martyred. Let’s just say that the statue is not a work of beauty. It seems to stare balefully at the congregation.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A straight down-the-line Catholic mass with hymns. No pretensions. There was a cheerful atmosphere.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7– Father Cleary had the knack of directness, making you think he was speaking to you, but I would have welcomed a slightly longer homily. Also, like many priests, he included a précis of the gospel that we had just heard. Why do this, given that we have heard the substance only a minute or two before? The parable was about the vineyard sharecroppers who tried to withhold their payments and killed the owner’s son when he was sent to them (Matthew 21:33-43).
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The harvest display in front of us reminded us of the importance of thanksgiving to God. The whole eucharist was itself one great act of thanksgiving. It was now our turn to bring to God the fruits of the vineyard, which were the fruits of the Kingdom: love, forgiveness, justice, mercy. We need to remember, however, that these values could be in conflict with the values of the world around us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The women lectors were superb. Really, they ought to offer master classes in reading. Every word was clear, but the meaning was brought out without any hint of histrionics. When it came to the second reading (Philippians 4:6-9) with its references to anxiety and peace, it was as if the reader was sharing the peace with us. The excellence of reading continued during the intercessions, when after each bidding prayer there was a pause of just the right length to draw us in silence into a sharing of the prayer intention.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
If you are a man on your own, even a man of mature years, and you go to church, it is as if you are shunned. Time and again I find myself sitting on my own in the pew. This was no different. I think there is some unconscious prejudice at work here, and it is very sad.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I left quickly along with everyone else. The car park is small and crowded and I knew that until I moved my car, no one behind me could get out.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None at the vigil mass.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If I lived in Cambridge it would be top choice. It’s hard to explain, but I had the feeling that the people attending "owned" their church. They identified with it, and each other, and were glad to meet and share the Bread of Life. Ordinary people sharing the extraordinary gift of God. However, I might like to vary this occasionally with more intellectual fare from the Dominican chapel, which is open to the public.
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 strong sense of community.