Sts Michael & Gudula Cathedral, Brussels (Exterior)

St Michael & St Gudula Cathedral, Brussels, Belgium


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Michael & St Gudula Cathedral
Location: Brussels, Belgium
Date of visit: Sunday, 7 June 2015, 10:00am

The building

An impressively flamboyant construction dating from the 13th century. A large stone staircase leads to the three doors of the entrance on the western faade. Anyone with limited mobility would find access much easier from the south side. The interior is beautifully lit and spacious. The different styles of windows and columns show the development of the Gothic style over the period of about 300 years during which the cathedral was built. (However, I will have a remark to make about one of the windows later on.) Reflecting the cathedrals role in state functions, near the entrance there is a display of wedding photos of members of the Belgian royal family. A Baroque pulpit carved from oak shows the fall of man, with Adam and Eve being expelled from Eden, and the Redemption symbolised by Mary standing on a crescent moon and crowned with 12 stars, holding the Christ Child who is piercing a serpent with a cross. The nature of Eden is represented by exotic plants and animals, including a parrot and an eagle. Sadly, the carving of a monkey has been stolen. A lot of restoration work was carried out in the 20th century. The cathedral's website includes a detailed description of the architecture and appointments plus their rich symbolism.
As the 21st century dawned, peregrine falcons were discovered nesting in the cathedral towers, and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences installed cameras to capture falcon chicks frolicking among the gargoyles.

The church

This is one of the co-cathedrals of the Archdiocese of Mechelen-Brussels, the other being St Rumbolds Cathedral in Mechelen. It was given cathedral status in 1962; prior to that it was a collegiate church. Reflecting the bilingual nature of Brussels, services are held in French or Flemish or, as in the service I attended, both. During Advent, Christmastide, Lent and Eastertide, one of the Sunday masses is billed as a "festive mass" (messe festive) and features professional musical ensembles, professional actors as lectors, and guest preachers. Masses at other times often feature guest choirs.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is within easy reach of all the main tourist areas in Brussels. It is a few minutes walk from Grand Place. However, even though the cathedral is a very popular tourist spot in its own right, the surrounding area is quite peaceful. There is a small park in front of the cathedral with a statue of King Badouin, and plenty of seats under shady trees.

The cast

Monsieur le Doyen Claude Castiau, dean of the cathedral, celebrated and preached. The organist was Bart Jacobs. The choir was Schola Gregoriana, directed by Herbert Beirens. I didnt catch the name of the cantor who led the congregation, but she was very good.

What was the name of the service?


How full was the building?

Sunday mass is held in the nave. My first estimate was that there were about 200 people there, but at the end of the service there seemed to be many more leaving. I think a number of sightseers had decided to join in throughout the service and sit quietly at the back. The congregation were comprised mainly of the middle-aged and elderly – few children.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

I arrived about 20 minutes early and was greeted by two women who gave me a service booklet and smiled encouragingly. Other members of the congregation also smiled and nodded.

Was your pew comfortable?

There were plain wooden chairs rather than pews. They were adequately comfortable and the seating was not cramped. But there was nothing to kneel on (apart from the stone flags, of course).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Calm and reflective. People greeted each other and exchanged a few words, but then settled into pre-service contemplative mode.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

The introit for the day: Cibavit eos ex adipe frumenti, et de petra melle saturavit eos (He fed them with the finest grain and filled them with honey from the rock).

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Most used the printed service booklet, although a few had brought their own missals.

What musical instruments were played?

A selection of works by the French Baroque organist and composer Pierre Dumage were played on the organ. The instrument is an opus of the German organ builder Gerhard Grenzing.

Did anything distract you?

Wondering what sort of person would half-inch a monkey from a pulpit, and why the pillars are decorated with cabbage leaves.

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

The service was a formal, sung mass. It began with the asperges, the priest using what has to be the biggest aspergillum I have ever seen!

Exactly how long was the sermon?

20 minutes.

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

8 – My limited grasp of French makes that difficult to judge, but the congregation seemed engaged and attentive throughout the homily. The deans delivery was soft and measured.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The celebration of the eucharist should be a communal, fraternal act.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music and the atmosphere.

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

There was nothing displeasing in the service itself. But there is a series of stained glass windows that relate events in 1370 leading up to six Jews being burnt at the stake, having being accused of the theft and desecration of the Blessed Sacrament. According to legend, communion wafers began to bleed after being stabbed with daggers by Jews at the synagogue in Brussels. There is a plaque on the wall with a lengthy statement pointing out that there was never any evidence to support the accusation and that similar accusations were made elsewhere throughout the Middle Ages. But it is nevertheless disturbing to see such a graphic representation of blood libel in a sacred setting. How easily the evils of bigotry and racism can take root and flourish!

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

I didnt have time to hang around, but I would not have felt at all intimidated at the thought of striking up a conversation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I didnt notice whether any was on offer, but it seemed to me that most of the congregation were heading out of the building.

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

8 – I do like cathedral worship, but I also enjoy the more chaotic, family feel of services in a local parish.

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

Yes. I felt connected back to Christian tradition throughout the lifetime of the cathedral and through years to come.

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

The power shower of a blessing we all got from that aspergillum. It left nobody napping.

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