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555: St Patrick's Cathedral, New York City
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St Patrick's Cathedral, New York
Mystery Worshipper: Requiem.
The church: St Patrick's Cathedral, New York.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The building is constructed in cafe latte stone in the French gothic style. Ornate archways frame the airy space and the pillars are topped with carved leaves. The stained glass windows are intricate but dark and grubby looking and add little to the space. The impression was of harmony, restrained elegance and perhaps just a hint of New World one-up-manship. It was fascinating to get a glimpse of how the great European cathedrals must have looked before centuries of use softened their crisp edges.
The church: The church is the focus of worship for the city's 2.2 million Catholics. The congregation was eclectic – all ages, nationalities and classes worshipping together. To my left were an aged Eastern European couple and to my right a pair of "true blue" yankees – sneakers, baseball caps and all. I could hear a dozen different accents (and the occassional crying baby) saying the liturgy with me.
The neighbourhood: The church is right in the heart of New York with the Empire State building, Central Park and the Disney Store being only a few minutes walk away. During the day the streets are teeming with tourists, locals of all nationalities, stalls selling hot pretzels and the inevitable drunks. This isn't a residential area and, at that time of the morning, some of the side-streets felt a little unsafe. The feel was of run-down rich verging slightly on the seedy.
The cast: The service was led by His Eminence, Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York. One of the readings was by Admiral Mark Fitzgerald.
What was the name of the service?
Celebration of the Eucharist, Most Holy Trinity.

How full was the building?
The building was full but not uncomfortably so. All the pews were taken but no-one was left standing. I understand the cathedral seats about 2,200.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
A most insistent tract-wielding chap tried to convince me that the cardinal was involved in a Romish conspiracy to steal the US gold reserves. I suspect he was unconnected to the cathedral. The welcome desk greeted me in typical New York style. I stood unnoticed for a couple of minutes before asking, "Is a service about to start?" The welcomer looked me up and down for a moment or two before replying, "Yes." That said, I didn't feel unwelcome. The cardinal made several references to welcoming the visitors during the service. He seemed genuinely friendly, shaking hands and chatting to people as he processed out.

Was your pew comfortable?
The pews were fairly standard dark oak affairs, average in both design and comfort. The only unusual feature was the flip-down kneeler which whacked my shins at the start of the eucharistic prayer.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Hushed, reverential and expectant. Other than for a few muttering tourists gathered at the back everyone sat in prayerful silence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Welcome. Please open your hymnals to page..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
The St Michael Hymnal and a printed service sheet.

What musical instruments were played?
An organ, played gloriously, swelled to fill the space.

Did anything distract you?
The in-service televisions. My pew was officially "restricted view" and the service was beamed to me via a TV hung from one of the pillars. In fact I could see most of what was going on just fine, but my eye was constantly drawn to the TV screen. This was intensely irritating, especially when all that was showing were 'mood shots' of the candles, the book or the stained glass.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was both Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day weekend and the service was an unfortunate mix of faith and patriotism. It started off ordinarily enough. Reserved, dignified, obviously trying to be accessible. Tat-lite, perhaps? The cardinal wore a red skull cap but the vestments were otherwise simple; responses were sung but both words and tune were printed in the handy service sheet for the congregation to join in; there was only the faintest haze of incense; the military, though present in numbers, were unobtrusive. After communion that all changed. We were lead in a prayer of thanks for being American (I'm not) and for being in the capital city of the world (pretentious, no?). We gave a rousing round of applause for the troops. The clergy processed out to "America the Beautiful" and the uniformed crucifer was clapped as he passed. It all felt terribly out of place.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
15 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Cardinal Egan is an excellent preacher, however he seemed to be struggling with a cold. He paused several times to cough or wipe his nose and he sounded very nasal. That, in combination with his strong american accent and the hissy speakers, made him a little hard to understand at times.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Researchers spent great time and effort trying to read one of the Dead Sea scrolls only for the script to become legible in prints taken by a janitor on his ordinary camera. The Trinity is a great mystery, one which theologians have studied, debated and written masterpieces about. But maybe all we really need to know of the Trinity is in the snapshots of God revealed to us in the scriptures. The pocket camera truth can be summed up as, "We have a Father in heaven whose Son was willing to die for us and whose Spirit makes us holy."

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almightly," at the start of the service. The narrow Gothic arches go up forever and the massed voices, remarkably soft and clear, seemed to rise up with them. Shivers ran up and down my spine.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Being barred from communion. The cardinal can quote John 3:16 all he likes, but the impression that closed communion gives is that the Pope doesn't love me enough to allow me to share in God's presence. That hurts. The patronising explanation in the service sheet didn't help either.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I wandered around the cathedral, admiring the gorgeous architecture and the little side-chapels lining the walls. The congregation flooded out, the tourists flocked in and no-one seemed to notice I was lost.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – If only the Pope would recognize me as a fellow Christian...

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, it did. It is wonderful to know that the great european tradition of cathedral building is being carried on. It was also lovely to be in a cathedral with such a large and worshipful congregation. In England, sadly, that doesn't happen very often.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The strange mixture of the patriotic and the Christian that seemed to value the uniformed crucifer more than the cross he was carrying.
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