|735: Santa Cruz, Manila, Philippines|
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Mystery Worshipper: Pax Britannica.
The church: Santa Cruz, Manila, Philippines.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: It's a pretty, Spanish colonial of 1608, with a pagoda/bell tower to the side. Much damaged by earthquakes and the destruction of Manila during World War II, the large interior was rebuilt with all the charm of a 1950s railway station waiting room. The parvis of the church is partially laid with 18th century tomb slabs in Spanish and Latin, and the large and busy square in front has a charming 1880 cast-iron fountain gushing water. Santa Cruz is served by the congregation of the blessed sacrament, and boasts a good parochial school.
The church: A good cross-section of the local urban neighbourhood belong to the church: many families, a large band of distinguished men in the traditional white barong shirts – a confraternity, perhaps – and an equally large contingent of nuns.
The neighbourhood: Santa Cruz is on the edge of Chinatown (for whom it was built), which is the usual frenzied mix of commercial and residential premises, cramped streets, dirt and noise and bustle, teeming with humanity. A few grander 1930s commercial buildings (and the square) attempt to set a loftier tone, but are all rather run down.
The cast: The Most Rev. Teodoro J. Buhain, Jr., auxiliary bishop of Manila was celebrant. Two concelebrants, 16 servers, and about 20 eucharistic ministers also took part. All were male, except a woman who read the Old Testament reading and carried in the lectionary.
What was the name of the service?
For Corpus Christi Sunday: "Eucharistic celebration at Santa Cruz, procession to the cathedral, eucharistic celebration at the cathedral". This turned out to mean a mass of the feast, followed by a procession of the blessed sacrament to the cathedral in Intramuros, the old walled city. The route crossed the Pasig River over MacArthur Bridge, where there was then a station and benediction at a temporary altar erected in front of the Post Office building at the end of a dusty park (the fountains and deafening rock music were obligingly turned off for this). The procession continued along Taft Avenue, past City Hall, and passed through the narrow old streets of Intramuros to the cathedral. There, the monstrance was taken by a cathedral cleric, brought under a canopy into the cathedral, rose petals being scattered by girls in dark red dresses, and benediction given again. This was followed by another mass of the day.
How full was the building?
Santa Cruz was almost full at the start of the mass, and quickly packed to capacity (about 600) with the influx of nuns. About 350 took part in the procession, and a further large congregation was waiting at the cathedral.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Attendance at divine service in the Catholic tropics is much too informal to permit a welcome. One wanders in and out at will.
Was your pew comfortable?
They certainly looked comfortable, but were almost completely occupied. Standing brought one nearer the electric fans (though the cathedral has the astonishing luxury of being air-conditioned).
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Tropical chaos, with the usual milling of crowds worshipping statues, greeting each other, vainly attempting to control small children.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father..." This was spoken in Tagalog, rather than English.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books, but the dreaded OHP made an appearance at Santa Cruz for an entrance song, the gloria and other interludes.
What musical instruments were played?
A loud electronic keyboard, routed through the PA system, accompanied a mixed choir and enthusiastic congregational singing in both Santa Cruz and the cathedral (the latter has a large pipe organ, though I suspect long unused). The music was Rogers & Hammerstein liturgy-lite, but redeemed from total banality by energetic congregational participation.
Did anything distract you?
Surprisingly, given that the language was almost entirely foreign, and one was standing in tropical heat in a milling throng, one could stay focused. This was probably because the service was taken at a good speed, though without feeling rushed: there were no unnecessary pauses or gaps, and the pace of reading/singing kept going. A model for other large gatherings in that respect.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Insouciantly modern Roman formal: the modern Roman rite, including incense and processional cross and candles. Bishop Buhain, a cleric of riper years, performed the ceremonies quite carefully and completely. The benediction was in English, and at the station, the bishop led the divine praises (not much favoured these days); at the cathedral, the dean did not, although we did sing "Tantum ergo" in Latin. Outside Santa Cruz, the monstrance (which was enormous, and contained a host the size of a dinner plate) was secured amidst a profusion of white gladdies to a box on the back of a pick-up truck, and the bishop seated and draped on another box before it. All were covered by a canopy made of what looked like a pink candlewick bedspread. The procession was led by the thurifer, cross and torches; the nuns and the laity, carrying candles, following the host. The procession was very long – nearly two miles – but was energetically and effectively marshalled by several quasi-police vehicles and what looked like off-duty cops (hence, no doubt, their effectiveness). The arrival in the narrow streets of Intramuros caused great excitement among the humbler inhabitants of that part of the city, which the servers seemed to enjoy. At the cathedral, another group of servers was waiting, and a much more elaborate canopy with eight poles was held over the monstrance as the host entered the building.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 Dr Buhain deserves a medal for realizing that the procession was itself a sermon, and that he needn't drone on.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We are what we eat. The bread of the eucharist is the body of Jesus, who lived, died and rose again. We have to be like Jesus, and that includes being nicer to people round us. Preached in Tagalog, but with many English sentences for emphasis.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The deafening crash of the bells as the procession left Santa Cruz, and the crash of the bells again as we approached the cathedral. Fortunately, only a few of the bells in each tower seemed to be in working order, otherwise the structures would probably have collapsed.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Trying to maintain a sense of devotion walking along Taft Avenue, enveloped in diesel fumes and roaring traffic in 90 degree heat.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I was set upon by infant beggars, a woman selling garlands, a driver of a carriage drawn by a half-dead horse, and (this was the offer I gratefully accepted) the driver of an air-conditioned, hotel-bound, taxi.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was no coffee after the service. Instead, I escaped, and had a large gin in my luxurious hotel.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 Other, more low key masses at Santa Cruz may be tolerable, but the church is in reality catering to the local congregation, who certainly (and correctly) regard it as an extension of their homes. Finding public worship is surprisingly not easy – most of the larger and better situated churches spend Sunday mornings doing weddings (surely contrary to the rubrics?).
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Completely, and a Catholic Christian, too. The liturgy and the theme for the day made complete sense to me, as to all of us present.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The street urchins running with excitement to see the Lord pass by.