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1810: Westminster Cathedral, London
Westminster Cathedral
Mystery Worshipper: Ecclesiastical Flip-flop.
The church: Metropolitan Cathedral of the Most Precious Blood, London.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of Westminster.
The building: 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.
The church: 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 neighbourhood: 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 nearby.
The cast: 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 service?
Solemn Pontifical Mass of Farewell for the Relic of Sainte Thérèse of Lisieux.

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 service?
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 were played?
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 you?
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 sermon?
15 minutes.

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 coffee?
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 Christian?
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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