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Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, London.
Roman Catholic, Archdiocese
A cathedral-church that needs no introduction; the cathedral website
as well as previous Mystery Worship reports describe this Byzantine
structure well. What is more to the point on this occasion is
that this was the visitation of the relics of St Thérèse
of Lisieux. Thérèse's calling to the vocation of a Carmelite
nun, her life of patience, love and acceptance, and her death
in 1897 at age 24, are likewise well documented elsewhere. She
was canonised in 1925.
This is the mother church of the Roman Catholic
community of England and Wales and the seat of the Archbishop
of Westminster. With seven weekend masses and nearly as many
masses each weekday, it attracts worshippers in droves, from
far and near – regulars and visitors.
The cathedral is situated in Victoria Street (near the railway
station so named) with a big piazza leading up to the (liturgical)
west front. It is a busy street with plenty of shops and offices
The Most Revd Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, was
the celebrant and preacher, assisted by hundreds of clerics
and laity – too numerous to mention.
The date & time:
15 October 2009, 3.00pm.
What was the name of the
Solemn Pontifical Mass of Farewell for the Relic of Sainte Thérèse
How full was the building?
Absolutely bursting at the seams – there may have been 2,000
people present, with an overflow congregation following the
service outside on a large screen in the piazza.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Only a steward to direct me to my seat.
Was your pew comfortable?
Wooden chairs joined together, which passed muster. The cathedral
was so full that I had to occupy a seat in the Lady chapel south
of the sanctuary, liturgically speaking.
How would you describe
the pre-service atmosphere?
I got in just as the service was about to start and it was all
a hustle and bustle. I had previously been present three days
earlier for the arrival of the relics at the cathedral, when
I had to stand outside to follow the mass on the large screen,
after which I was able to follow the queue inside to view and
venerate the relics. Candles and roses were on sale for £1 each,
either to leave at the relics or to take home, but I did not
want to buy any.
What were the exact opening words of the
The hymn "Love divine, all loves excelling," followed
by "Let us pray" and the collect at the relics. Then
the words of the introit sung in Latin by the choir, and finally
the Sign of the Cross.
What books did the congregation
use during the service?
A specially printed service paper with everything needed. Service
papers were at a premium and I was desperate for one. The young
lady sitting next to me had one that she wasn't using. Instead,
she was reading a devotional book about St Thérèse. I whispered
to her asking her to lend it to me, which she did. I then wrote
copious notes from the service paper, which I needn't have done
as it happened. For when I offered it back to her, she did not
want it and let me keep it. So that was a bit of luck!
What musical instruments
The organ. The setting of the mass was Cantus Missae
by the 19th century German composer Josef Rheinberger, with
the congregational parts sung to plainsong. The offertory motet
was M Martin's Pain Vivant de la Foi (Living Bread
of Faith), sung in French.
Did anything distract
Yes! To begin with, the long procession at the start of the
service, with many priests concelebrants (too numerous to count)
and a few bishops. A handful of seminarians and any deacons
preceded the concelebrants, each vested in a plain alb. There
were a few knights in uniform (presumably of St Columba) and
the choir of men and boys. The Most Revd George Stack, Auxiliary
Bishop of Westminster, was milling about dressed in simple black
canonicals and black pullover. I soon realised that my seat
would not provide a view of any of the proceedings, and so I
distracted myself by contemplating the mosaics in the Lady chapel.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip,
happy clappy, or what?
It was a full-scale solemn pontifical mass, lasting an hour
and a half. As I am familiar with the big ceremonies and the
layout of the cathedral, I had a good idea what was going on,
without being able to see any of it. The big main pulpit halfway
down the nave was used for the readings and the homily. The
third eucharistic prayer, which is most often reserved for Sundays
and major feast days, was used. The Most Revd Bernard Longley,
Archbishop-elect (at the time of this writing) of Birmingham,
ministered the eucharist at the communion station nearest to
me. Right at the very end of the mass, it was time to say farewell
to the relics. It was not only good-bye to the relics at the
cathedral, but also good-bye at the end of the schedule of the
month-long tour of England. The partition screen, dividing the
cathedral into two parts, was removed, and the the recession
was able to proceed along the entire nave once again whilst
the classic old hymn "To Jesus' Heart all Burning" was being
sung. The crowds were moving towards the exits for a final view
of the relics as they were placed in the hearse that had been
borrowed for the duration of the tour. There was much cheering,
and petals were being strewn from the gallery above. The organ
voluntary was the finale from Louis Verne's Symphony in D Minor,
opus 14. At this point, large bunches of roses were being sold
for £5 each, but I did not want to buy one.
Exactly how long was the
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 The acoustics and the location of my seat, combined
with too many people coughing and rustling paper, make it difficult
for me to hear the sermon, but I have heard the archbishop preach
before and am basing my score on that memory.
In a nutshell, what was
the sermon about?
The archbishop held out St Thérèse's life as an example
of how to open our hearts to God's unwavering love. Toward the
end of her life St Thérèse suffered great pain from the
ravages of tuberculosis. Today we struggle to understand and
respond to the experience of terminal illness and approaching
death. Many feel that they should be free to end their lives
whenever they wish. St Thérèse, too, fought such impulses.
But life is a gift from God, not a possession. We live in a
time of fragile and disposable relationships: if I know and
care for this person, what's in it for me? But St Thérèse
taught us that God does not love us because of what's in it
for him. She abandoned her life to God, and welcomed death as
a gift from God rather than a decision of hers. Neither life
nor death, certainly not death, has any enduring meaning beyond
our belonging to each other and to the Lord.
Which part of the service
was like being in heaven?
The high standard singing of the cathedral choir of men and
boys, which is always very heavenly in the cathedral.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Poked away in the Lady chapel, being unable to see anything,
and being unable to hear certain parts of the service.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No point whatsoever in looking lost! The departing congregation
filed out through the doors after the relics were carried outside,
and everyone was far too busy to pass the time of day with strangers.
How would you describe the after-service
None was available and none was possible, short of going to
McDonalds or to another café in the neighbourhood. The cathedral
hall, open at other times for refreshments and for buying devotional
objects and reading material, was closed at this juncture.
How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 A big church like that has a lot of people coming and
going. Different people going to different masses and services
inevitably do not have the opportunity for meeting, so it is
easy to be lost in the crowds. But I do feel at home there.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a
Yes, without a doubt.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The lovely mosaics on the ceiling of the Lady chapel, which
is all I could see when I was at my seat.
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