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1006: Cathedral of St John the Baptist, San Juan, Puerto Rico
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Cathedral of St John the Baptist, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Mystery Worshipper: The Geezer.
The church: Catedral Metropolitana San Juan Bautista (Metropolitan Cathedral of St John the Baptist), San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: The cathedral dates from 1521 and is said to be the oldest church in the Western Hemisphere. The original structure was blown away by a hurricane shortly after it was finished, and was quickly replaced by a building which gradually evolved into the present Spanish Mission style church. The stone exterior is cream colored, although guide books show it in pink. The interior is Gothic and illuminated by plain-glass clerestory windows. The sanctuary is large and features a high altar of marble and a row of arches around the apse, into which blends the archbishop's throne. Side chapels open off the nave; in one of these, the Chapel of the Souls in Purgatory, rest the earthly remains of San Pio, whose name twelve popes have taken, in a rather maudlin reliquary that leaves no doubt that the blessed martyr is dead. The chapel is illuminated by a stained glass window in which angels are seen rescuing souls from the flames of Purgatory, much like a squad of celestial firemen. The tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon sits opposite, the bones of the seeker of the Fountain of Youth sealed from public view in what appears to be a marble fireplace.
The church: The cathedral ministers only to a Spanish-speaking congregation. I saw no literature nor any indication of services in English.
The neighborhood: Old San Juan occupies a peninsula to the north of the modern city. Many of its structures and narrow cobblestone streets date from the 16th and 17th century Spanish colonial era. Buildings with hanging balconies and rainbow paint schemes, once home to convents, schools and churches, now house trendy boutiques, restaurants and souvenir shops. The level of preservation runs the gamut from fair to seedy. The cathedral itself suffers from crumbling plaster and water-stained walls despite an ongoing restoration effort.
The cast: The Rev. Jose Emilio Cummings, rector of the cathedral, was the celebrant. The Rev. Miguel Ezquerros, parochial vicar, served as deacon. The names of the crucifer and a sole acolyte were not given.
What was the name of the service?
Mass with imposition of ashes (Ash Wednesday).

How full was the building?
The cathedral holds about 250 and was completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes – plain wooden pews with padded kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People entered silently and engaged in quiet prayer.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo. Amen." The celebrant was vested in an ample purple chasuble with gold orphreys; the deacon wore a purple deacon's stole over his alb. The crucifer and acolyte were both vested in albs.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Everyone seemed to know the prayers, chants and hymns from memory. A mimeographed sheet in Spanish was distributed containing devotional meditations for Lent.

What musical instruments were played?
None. The celebrant led the singing in a strong bass voice, delightfully on pitch, and the congregation joined in heartily with no instrumental accompaniment. An ornate pipe chamber sat high above the sanctuary to the right, but I have a feeling the organ is not in playable condition.

Cathedral of St John the Baptist, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Did anything distract you?
Twelve large votive candles had been placed on the altar rail; I wondered what they were for. During the chanting of the Agnus Dei, the deacon fetched a large veiled ciborium from the tabernacle and brought it to the altar; he looked every bit like a headwaiter bringing the main course to the table. The side chapels were a bit much – another chapel, the Chapel of Our Lady of Providence, features a statue of Mary seated on a throne above the altar holding a Puerto Rican flag, as if she were watching a parade.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a missa cantata in Spanish. The celebrant chanted the propers, including the collect, psalm and communion antiphon, and led the congregation in chanting the Kyrie, sursum corda, sanctus, great Amen and Agnus Dei. He also led several hymns, some of which were familiar and others not. The deacon, however, did not chant the Gospel; rather, he read it from the pulpit.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
There was no sermon.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
So much. I was amazed at how the dark museum-like cathedral was transformed into a bright, lively venue for the celebration of mass. The six altar candles were small votive lights enclosed in glass lanterns on tall stems; the effect was most elegant. The celebrant sang with gusto and the congregation's participation was equally energetic. My Spanish is not good enough to comment on the quality of the text, but everything seemed dignified and reverential.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Although Father sang beautifully, he was a little overmiked – he could have turned the volume down a notch or two. The congregation engaged in that annoying custom of extending their hands during the Lord's Prayer; some held hands. During the exchange of peace many people gave a cryptic wave of the hand, sort of like a secret sign – something I had never seen before.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
After the final blessing, we all went forward for the imposition of ashes. Some lingered afterwards to take photographs and stop at the counter where religious items were being sold, but there was little if any visiting.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – I liked the warm sense of community and the overall dignity and beauty of the service – almost (almost) like the old days. If I lived in San Juan and my Spanish were better, I would be tempted to visit the cathedral often.

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

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The high level of energy that permeated the proceedings.
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