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273: St Agnes, New York City, USA
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St Agnes, New York City
Mystery Worshipper: Leo P. Faith.
The church: St Agnes, New York City, USA.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The suppressed classical faade of St Agnes will be familiar to anyone who has visited Italy's cities. The church's nearly austere interior, though, may be a surprise. Windows in the barrel-vaulted ceiling flood the church with natural light. The walls are painted white, while the pillars, capitals, cornices and pilasters are a light gray. Dark-stained, nearly black wooden pews contrast with the walls. An even stronger contrast, though, is the triptych of St Agnes behind the altar done in bright, Salvador Dali-like colors. No side altars. Many statues in wall niches, though.
The neighbourhood: Located in midtown Manhattan, one block east of Grand Central Station, St Agnes is a diverse, very active church. In addition to several daily masses, confessions and other regularly scheduled religious services, St Agnes also operates a soup kitchen. This particular Sunday was the 50th anniversary of the baptism of Lifeboat Louie who wears a backpack, is a regular at Operation Rescue (an anti-abortion organization), and sometimes is at the Subway Rosary. As the bulletin graciously put it, "the rest of us cannot live as Lifeboat does, but we commend him for remaining close to God."
The cast: The Mass, I was informed by a parishioner, was celebrated by a new priest, Mario Portello, who was not listed in the bulletin.
What was the name of the service?
The 12th Sunday after Pentecost. Tridentine High Mass at 11.00am.

How full was the building?
Very nearly full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one greeted me, but there were knots of people outside St Agnes on the sidewalk kibitzing before and after mass.

Was your pew comfortable?
The wooden pew, although unpadded, was fine.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was the mild hubbub of people taking their places. Regulars were easy to spot as they went directly to their customary pews. Newcomers, like me, paused and surveyed the church before picking a place to sit. It seemed to me the parishioners were more likely to pray beforehand while the visitors murmured their reactions to St Agnes to one another.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Mass began with a procession, the blessing of the congregation and then the altar with holy water and incense. The only sound was the clanking of the chain against the thurible. The first words were: "In nomine Patris..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
An order of service with Latin-English translations, plus a green card with the words and music for the Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. Many worshippers seemed to know the mass by heart – knowledge I lost some 40 years ago. I recommend a Latin-English missal to properly follow the service.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ, with choir.

Did anything distract you?
The usual toddler bother. Why is it early signs of distress or boredom by young children are ignored until the problem becomes embarrassing for all? The Tridentine High Mass can take up to 90 minutes to complete and the problem escalates with time.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Solemn" is the single best word to describe the service.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
It seemed much longer than it actually took. Seven minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Pleasant young priest trying earnestly to reach the congregation. But I feel the weight of the argument in his sermon may have defeated him.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon began with the story of the Good Samaritan and embroidered on the theme of Christian love and the importance of loving others as oneself. The priest's remarks were unexceptionable until he raised the dilemma of whether we could justify the abortion of Hitler, knowing beforehand what he would do if allowed to live. He struggled manfully with this, seemingly daunted by the enormity of the problem he had posed.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The solemnity of the mass was impressive. The choir's interpretation of Bach's Praeludium in C Major was rousing and joyful.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
No hugging or handshakes, thank goodness. But, as I mentioned, Tridentine Latin masses are unlikely to involve youngsters who get bored and fidgety.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
It would be hard to hang around inside the church because another mass typically starts soon after the last one ends. As I was leaving, an older woman stopped to tell me that the next Latin mass would be devoted to St Theresa.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
To the best of my knowledge, if you want coffee and savories after mass at St Agnes you have to look for them in the shops, restaurants, Starbucks, or hotels on the nearby avenues or on 42nd Street.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5. The austerity of St Agnes and the severity of the Latin mass were a bit off-putting. They would take some getting used to.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
While the mass brought back many memories of when I was a choirboy at Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church in Detroit, Michigan, the many years between then and now made the mass more foreign to me than I expected.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Hearing Latin spoken, of course.
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