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  1514: Our Lady of the Sun International Shrine, El Mirage, Arizona, USA

Our Lady of the Sun International Shrine, El Mirage, Arizona

Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwythe, accompanied by JB and Ye Olde Motherboarde.
The church: Our Lady of the Sun International Shrine, El Mirage, Arizona, USA.
Denomination: Traditional Roman Catholic. Traditional Roman Catholics are not in communion with Rome, which they call Newchurch. They repudiate the Second Vatican Council and consider the papacy to have been vacant since the death of Pius XII (although some accept the legitimacy of John XXIII). They regard the novus ordo mass as an invalid eucharist.
The building: A stone building in the Spanish mission style. The grounds include a rectory, several ancillary buildings, and various statues and shrines. The interior is low-ceilinged and wide, with marble-patterned tiles on the floor, cream colored walls, and stained glass windows depicting the 12 apostles. Several statues are perched on a ledge above the east-facing altar. There is quite a bit of religious artwork scattered about the church, including a Last Supper and a Pieta.
The church: Our Lady of the Sun was founded by Father Frances LeBlanc, a Canadian Roman Catholic priest who retired to Phoenix around 1980. Although the shrine was at first under the jurisdiction of the Diocese of Phoenix, Father LeBlanc fell out of favor with the bishop of Phoenix for celebrating the tridentine mass without the bishop's indult, and was eventually suspended from his sacred duties. Despite failing health, LeBlanc continued to maintain the shrine as a part of the Traditional Catholic movement. He died in 2006. I was not able to get a feel for the life of the parish, as there was no bulletin, but during announcements the priest did mention a very successful pot luck social that was held the week before, plus catechism classes and upcoming sessions for prospective converts.
The neighborhood: El Mirage is one of several independent cities comprising the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. The city is predominantly Hispanic and features middle class as well as poor neighborhoods. The church is located in a sparsely developed area.
The cast: The Revd Paul Andrade, pastor.
The date & time: 24th Sunday after Pentecost, November 11, 2007, 9.00am. The priest explained that the liturgy was actually that of the fifth Sunday of Epiphany, giving reasons that were not all that easy to understand (something about Easter having come early and thus having cut Epiphany short and creating extra Sundays after Pentecost).

What was the name of the service?
Latin Tridentine Mass.

How full was the building?
The building can hold about 400 and was about one-third full just before mass began. Latecomers trickled in slowly, and by the time the Gospel was read I'd say it was three-quarters full. A sign posted at the entrance listed the dress code that is strictly enforced: for women, dresses with hemline below the knees and a head covering; for men, suit or dress shirt and slacks. Everyone was very conservatively dressed, although I observed several ladies whose hemlines just barely conformed to the policy – and believe me, they wouldn't win any lovely legs competition! I'll have more to say about the dress code later.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. A few people said good morning in the parking lot, but there were no greeters stationed at the doors. No fashion police checking dress code compliance, either – just as well, as my fellow Mystery Worshipper, Ye Olde Motherboarde, was wearing slacks.

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes. It was a plain wooden pew and very roomy.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet as a tomb. People entered in silence and did not exchange greetings.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I assume In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti, although they were inaudible over a hymn that the choir was attempting to sing. I say "attempting to" because the choir were simply dreadful! They literally squeaked out the text, and I was not familiar with the tune, nor did I understand the words.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. There was no bulletin or order of service, and no books of any kind in the pews. Some people had brought missals with them and were silently following along as the mass progressed.

What musical instruments were played?
Electronic organ accompanying a choir of four.

Did anything distract you?
There were two cry rooms at either side of the rear entrance, and they were well occupied, but a babe or two in arms still let out a squawk now and then. Whenever this happened, the priest stopped talking and waited for silence to resume.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A by-the-book tridentine Latin low mass, east-facing of course. The two altar boys were vested in red cassocks and short square-necked surplices. The priest entered in a biretta, and wore a green Gothic chasuble over a lace alb and a maniple on his left arm. The entire mass was a dialogue in Latin between priest and altar boys – the congregation said nothing and sang nothing. When they could be heard, the priest and altar boys sounded like they were speaking proper Latin at proper conversational speed. There were no trip-ups in the choreography. As the priest elevated the sacred elements, the altar boys lifted his chasuble. We received communion on the tongue. Mass concluded with the last Gospel and the Leonine prayers (which was the only time the congregation said anything at all), but minus the divine praises.

Our Lady of the Sun International Shrine, El Mirage, Arizona

Exactly how long was the sermon?
16 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – The priest spoke clearly and had obviously prepared his sermon well. It was a solid exposition of the subject matter and built to a powerful climax.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He preached on the Gospel for the day, Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the good seed. People often ask how God can permit evil to co-exist with good. If I were God, we say, I'd call down thunder and lightning and destroy evil once and for all. But evil has existed ever since Satan's rebellion. If there were no evil, how could we ever know virtue or grow in grace? We are the good seed mentioned in the Gospel, the weeds are the Devil's work, and the granary is heaven. God plants the good seed of grace in our souls through the sacrament of holy communion. The Devil seeks to corrupt our souls with the weeds of temptation, discouragement, self-hatred and fear. We don't have to wait till eternity to dig out these weeds – and the sooner the better, for weeds have tough roots and tend to grow back even stronger as soon as they are pulled. There are plenty of weeds all around us, perhaps sitting in the pew next to us, or in our neighborhood, or in society, or even in the structure of the church! We must not become discouraged; we must not abandon religion. We are destined for heaven, but God will not force us to follow him. He has given us free will. The sermon concluded with a prayer to the Blessed Mother to help us resist evil and arrive at our final reward.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The choir improved somewhat at communion time, and subjected (I hesitate to say treated) us to a medley of old chestnuts such as O sacrum convivium, "O Lord I am not worthy" and Ecce panis angelorum – hymns I hadn't heard for a good 40 years!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
But oh, that choir the rest of the time! They attempted to sing "For all the saints" at the offertory – the draggiest, most sour, off-key rendition I've ever sat through! And they did all the verses, which took us well into the eucharistic prayer – oops, I mean the canon. The priest did not wait for them to finish before starting the sursum corda, preface and sanctus.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The concluding hymn was "Holy God we praise thy name," and Ye Olde Motherboarde couldn't resist joining in despite the fact that the rest of the congregation remained silent. After that, although we tried to look like first-timers, no one paid any attention to us as they left. One old gent, however, tapped me on the shoulder and told me how impressed he was that, as a person with doubts about my faith, I was taking notes to guide me in my spiritual journey through the week. "If you only knew!" I thought to myself. As we were leaving, a group of ladies approached Ye Olde Motherboarde and asked her if she'd like to receive communion. "I already did," she replied. "But how could you have?" the ladies wondered. "You're wearing slacks, and we don't allow that!" After a flurry of "I didn't know, please forgive me" on the part of Ye Olde Motherboarde, they opened a closet door, revealing a collection of skirts in all sizes reserved just for such an occasion. "Well, at least you didn't wear shorts!" one of the ladies finally said.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
A lady in the parking lot told us that coffee was being served in one of the other buildings; otherwise we wouldn't have known. Upon entering, we were surprised to discover the heretofore silent, docile congregation visiting animatedly with each other over refreshments. Several people welcomed us and directed us toward the coffee pot, but no one engaged us in conversation. Coffee was average and in styrofoam cups. There was also fruit punch available, plus an assortment of pastries of all kinds, and even burritos and cheese enchiladas!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
4 – What to say? Traditional Roman Catholics have divorced themselves from the Vatican but continue to maintain that their version of the Catholic Church is the one true church outside of which there is no salvation. I do not agree with that. God is bigger than any institution.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
No. I do not believe that following along silently in a missal is praising God.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
That sour choir! I want to run to the nearest Episcopal church and clean out my ears with the 1982 Hymnal!
 
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