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Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, London.
Where do I start? A magnificent Byzantine structure of various
marbles, mosaics, sheer spaciousness. Even their website, which
offers a virtual tour of the building, can only highlight details.
You need to visit the place yourself.
This is the centre of English Roman Catholicism and is a place
of pilgrimage, a place to visit, and a place of worship. It
also has a large and thriving interaction with and service to
its neighbours, both in pastoral and voluntary care, and a variety
of groups that meet in the cathedral itself and in the associated
buildings. Immediately after the mass that I attended, the rosary
was being recited in a neighbouring chapel. Later that evening
a charismatic group was scheduled to meet in one of the assembly
A five minute walk from Victoria Station, destination for many
continental trains. Tourist centre, business centre, West End
theatre over the road, homeless begging in the street. Multicultural,
international. People of all ages and nationalities pass through
for a variety of reasons. And there are the residents.
Mass was concelebrated by three priests, none of whom was introduced
to us. I found out afterward that the chief celebrant was the
Revd Slawomir Witon, sub-administrator of the cathedral, rector
of the College of Chaplains, prefect of the sacristy, and master
of ceremonies to the archbishop.
The date & time:
Friday, 5 August 2009, 5.30pm.
What was the name of the service?
How full was the building?
I counted about 70 people waiting for the service to begin.
By 5.30, and with some latecomers, this had risen to an estimated
200 or so.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There were many people around, but they were obviously visitors
like myself. The information desk was shut for the day, and
the only person who seemed to be working at the cathedral was
lighting the candles on the high altar. I was not put off by
this, as I can imagine it being difficult, bordering on the
impossible, to have greeters for the numbers of people who must
pass through the cathedral daily. I turned the tables on this
situation by speaking to various people waiting in the pews.
Was your pew comfortable?
These were interlocked wooden chairs, with a hinged kneeler
that served the person sitting in the row behind. I found it
quite comfortable, and was there for a good three quarters of
an hour, even though the service itself only lasted 35 minutes.
How would you describe the pre-service
This is an enormous space. The hushed bustle at the doors and
back of the cathedral gave way to great calm and quiet in the
front section nearest the main altar. It was immensely soothing.
The building is so beautiful that one can sit and gaze comfortably
for quite some time. There was one crying baby somewhere in
one of the more distant areas, but it was still possible to
concentrate, relaxing into the ambience. People coming in moved
quietly and spoke very quietly! The numbers assembling crept
up imperceptibly, I would say, trebling in the 15 minutes or
so before the beginning of the service. The vastness of the
space tends to swallow sound.
What were the exact opening words of the
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the
What books did the congregation use during the
None! Not a Bible, service sheet or hymn book was to be found.
Several of the congregation were obviously familiar with the
format; others, like myself, had to rely on very old memories
of the way things used to be, and try to pick it up as we went
along. Of course, since this is August and the choir were on
holiday, there was in any case no music. I do hope that during
the rest of the year, if there are hymns, a sheet is provided.
If Westminster Abbey can do that much, so can Westminster Cathedral!
What musical instruments were played?
None. There was no music.
Did anything distract you?
The baby eventually stopped crying, but was replaced as a distraction
by a mother and young daughter who came in a few minutes late
and engaged in some busy unzipping of bags and jackets in the
row behind me. The rows of chairs were rather close together,
so when the little girl knelt down – she was minus front teeth,
so I would estimate her age as a well grown eight – she was
poised over my fleece and shoulder bag which I’d parked in the
seat next to me. No eight year old can resist fiddling! Mother
apologised. Actually, the girl was really well behaved on the
whole, as were all the children I noticed. The quiet was so
profound that tiny sounds were more noticeable than they would
have been normally. The other distraction was that by chance
I had chosen a seat from which the fixed lectern on my side
of the aisle blocked my view of the celebrant at the high altar.
This was not an issue until the service started, and I was already
sufficiently wary of being seen to take notes without wanting
to draw further attention to myself by changing seats!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
This was very much the format I remember as a child. Concelebrated
by three vested priests, with the verbal formulas, if not entirely
unchanged, still pretty familiar. Bells were jingled at all
the appropriate times. The mass was formal but warm, largely
owing to the embracing manner of the chief celebrant, who had
an engaging verbal delivery that took good account of the PA
system and, shall I call them, interesting acoustics! There
was one reading given by a lady, and this was very well done
indeed. This lady also led the responsorial psalm, and enough
of the congregation were familiar with the format to pull the
rest of us along with them. There was one bit of chanting after
the offertory, to which the congregation chanted Amen in response.
I hadn’t been missing my usual hymn fix up until that point,
but it was nice to sing even those two notes!
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how
good was the preacher?
9 Father Witon, judging by his name, is from eastern
Europe. He spoke with some deliberation – partly, I think,
out of care for the language, and partly to allow for the time
lag of the building. The effect was simple, sincere and unpretentious.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
The theme was related to the day's gospel reading, that we have
to take up our crosses to follow Jesus. In a world where we
are encouraged to seek our own pleasure and happiness as a priority,
it can come as a shock to have this advice given to us. But
following God's will, while it may cause us pain at times, leads
us into joy and freedom.
Which part of the service was like being in
The wonderful calm of the pre-service period. The presiding priest’s delivery. The combination of great space, and many in the congregation, without actually feeling crowded.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
That wretched lectern! All my own fault, of course, but I didn’t
foresee that it would be an irritant. And I would have welcomed
a service sheet.
What happened when you
hung around after the service looking lost?
Looking lost would have got me nowhere, as it was obviously
not the kind of service where tea and biccies are on offer for
upwards of 200. Two things happened: The saying of the rosary
began in a neighbouring chapel, and I spotted the lady who’d
done the reading. I made my way over to her to compliment her
on her delivery and to find out about the chief celebrant! This
was the sort of occasion where people don’t approach each other
unless, like me, they need information and there’s no official
around to give it.
How would you describe
the after-service coffee?
None on offer.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 I was soothed and comforted by the atmosphere and conduct
of the service. Inevitably, if I were to become a regular, I
would not be a transient worshipper, and would be building a
relationship with the place and its staff. But that, I feel,
would not be too hard to do.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes. It made me grateful that such a place would be there when I needed it.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The sheer beauty and calm of the place.
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