The Basilica of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a grand basilica in the Spanish mission style, dedicated in 1915. The interior is a shutterbug's delight, boasting the largest collection of stained glass in Arizona. The great west window depicts the Blessed Virgin attended by angels. Behind the high altar is a Spanish style reredos depicting the Crucifixion with the two Marys in attendance plus (I believe) St Francis and St Anthony. A west-facing communion table stands in front of the reredos. Side chapels include one honoring Our Lady of Guadalupe, almost obligatory in Hispanic communities. Statuary includes a replica of the Infant of Prague and a very nice Pietà flanked by stained glass depicting St Augustine looking very much like the present Archbishop of Canterbury, and St Monica looking like the exasperated mother she was.
This is the oldest Roman Catholic parish in the greater Phoenix area. They sponsor a care ministry, bringing the sacraments to the homebound; a morning meal program for the needy; religious education; and classes in English as a second language. Due to its striking appearance, the basilica is a popular venue for weddings, and the undercroft includes a fully equipped banquet hall.
The basilica is at North Third Street between Monroe and Van Buren Streets in the heart of downtown Phoenix, and is easily reachable via light rail. Symphony Hall is nearby, and directly across the street is the grotesquely ugly modern monstrosity known as the Phoenix Convention Center.
The Revd Vincent J. Mesi, OFM, pastor, assisted by crucifer and thurifer whose names were not given. Gordon Stevenson, organist and choir director, was in charge of the music. Father Mesi was vested in alb, cincture, stole and white cope; the crucifer and thurifer in albs.
What was the name of the service?Solemn Vespers.
How full was the building?
I counted room for 600 and there were about 50 present - mostly young to middle age adults, both men and women.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. Service leaflets were available on a table for the taking.
Was your pew comfortable?
Borderline. Plain wooden pew.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered quietly. Father Mesi was puttering about the sanctuary getting things set up. A gentleman in street clothes and sporting a long gray pony tail came out to light the candles. There were 25 small votive candles on the high altar, plus the "high sixes" and two candles on the communion table. A lectern was set up in front of the sanctuary gate, and the two communion table candles were brought down and placed on either side of the lectern. The church bell was rung immediately before the service.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The choir opened with a motet, the lovely Adoramus Te Christe by the 19th century French composer Theodore Dubois. Then Father Mesi intoned the opening words of the evening office: "O God, come to our aid."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A very nicely done service booklet with all the music and readings.
What musical instruments were played?
A pipe organ in the choir loft. There was also a choir of three singers: soprano, alto and tenor. Both tMr Stevenson and the choir wore cassocks and surplices.
Did anything distract you?
The aforementioned gentleman who came out to light the candles had considerable trouble with the high sixes - they just wouldn't take a light from his taper! He ended up having to remove them from their holders in order to light them. When he finally succeeded, he indulged in a little victory dance as he returned to the sacristy.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
I have never witnessed a more dignified vespers or evensong in any church or cathedral, and believe you me, I've been around! The psalms were chanted to settings similar to Anglican chant. The service leaflet clearly indicated where the congregation was to join in, but I don't think this congregation was used to it; I noticed few people singing besides myself. The readings were 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 (all will be made alive in Christ, but each in turn) and an excerpt from the third letter of St Clare of Assisi to Agnes of Prague (as the Blessed Virgin carried Jesus materially, so can we carry him spiritually). The intercessions were set to a Taizé chant. Father Mesi chanted in a fine, strong baritone voice; he would make a fine addition to any choir. Altar, clergy and congregation were generously censed during the Magnificat.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – Father Mesi delivered a well thought out homily in a strong, clear voice. He seems well schooled in the art of preaching.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, but the Church has believed it for centuries. We have homilies on the subject that date from the sixth century. Some claim that the dogma has no basis in reality. But we have personally not seen the risen Lord, as the disciples did, yet we believe that Christ rose from the dead. In the Creed, we say that we believe in the resurrection of the body. Today's lesson from St Paul teaches that all will be made alive in Christ, but each in turn. First it was Christ's turn, and next came Mary. Where Mary has gone, we all hope to follow. Jesus has trampled out death forever. We may look forward with confidence to God's promise of life eternal, with Mary as a model for all of us.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Which part wasn't? Everything was absolutely splendid! I was tempted to go up in the choir loft and sing the bass line, as I knew all the music: the Dubois Adoramus Te Christe; an Ave Maria by the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacques Arcadelt; the plainchant Salve Regina Mater Misericordiae. The three choristers sang splendidly, though, and probably would not have appreciated an unrehearsed bass joining them.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
It saddened me to realize that there's hardly another Catholic church in the Diocese of Phoenix, or in the state of Arizona for that matter, that could, erm, hold a candle to the dignified way in which this service was conducted. But even so, the crucifer's jeans and white sneakers beneath his alb stood out in stark contrast to the thurifer's proper black haberdashery and Father Mesi's Franciscan sandals. I doubt if anyone noticed the tears trickling down the Little Infant of Prague's cheeks, not to mention St Monica's.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the final blessing, the altar party processed over to the Lady altar and gave it a thorough censing while the choir chanted the Salve Regina and the church bell was again rung. Then we all left as the organist played, I think, a Widor toccata, although I didn't recognize which one exactly. I shook Father Mesi's hand and asked him if all the services were this good. There had been no collection, and I could find no place to leave an offering, so I handed Father my folded Mystery Worship card with the suggestion that he open it later.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I live quite a distance from downtown Phoenix, but if transportation were not an issue I'd be there in a flash! I may go back one Sunday to see what their solemn mass is like, although I think I already know!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Didn't it just ever!
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The fact that Catholics can do liturgy if they really want to!