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1887: Santa María de la Asunción, Viana, Navarre, Spain
Santa María de la Asunción, Viana, Navarre, Spain
Mystery Worshipper: Augustine the Aleut.
The church: Santa María de la Asunción (St Mary of the Assumption), Viana, Navarre, Spain.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Archdiocese of Pamplona and Tudela.
The building: Built from 1250 to 1329. The richness of the church reflects the economic and political importance of Viana, which marks the frontier between the ancient kingdom of Navarre and the wine-drenched province of Rioja. Santa Maria's Gothic floor plan is overwhelmed by baroque and rococo altars and carving everywhere. The nicely-proportioned Renaissance tower and the strong Gothic layout saves the place from the hysterical drama of the 17th and 18th century makeover. Even so, you can see how the retablos and the statues were a great pedagogical tool for catechizing children and illustrating sermons. As a teacher from Adelaide remarked, they didn't have overheads, and this was the best they could do.
The church: Pope Alexander VI's son Cesar Borgia, who died in 1507 while single-handedly trying to defend the city during a siege, originally was buried beneath the middle of the Camino "to be trampled on by men and beasts," as the bishop ordered. But on the fifth centenary of his death, Cesar's earthly remains were finally reinterred inside the church. "Whatever he may have done in life, he deserves to be forgiven now," the Archbishop of Pamplona is reported to have said. Who claims that the Church is heartless?
The neighbourhood: Viana is in northern Spain. The Camino runs right through the heart of Viana, passing by the front door of the church. There are plenty of cafés and darn good restaurants.
The cast: Likely José María Ortiz Sola, the parish priest.
The date & time: Sunday, 27 September 2009, 12.00 noon.

What was the name of the service?
Parish Mass.

How full was the building?
Potentially holding about 350, the place was packed to the corbels, with standing room only. I suspect that there were 450-500 present, with a good mix of all ages, including a number of adolescents and young people, and perhaps two dozen pilgrims.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
We were hustled into place quickly by an usher as the service was about to begin. A local man helped us stack our backpacks so that nobody would trip over them.

Was your pew comfortable?
I was perched on the base of a pillar by the altar of Santa Catalina, a bit out of the line of sight of the altar, but only about 10 metres away from the musicians. There was the wonderful dancing trumpeter on the pulpit in front of us (pictured below).

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Rustling and lots of susurration as people took their seats and greeted each other. This place was a lot more genteel than the rough towns of Aragón.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"En el nombre del Padre, y del Hijo, y del Espíritu Santo."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
I could not see any in the pews from where I was sitting. There were small leaflets with the music of the day listed.

What musical instruments were played?
A professional baroque orchestra, with about 20 or so young musicians. They had violins, violas, cellos and harps.

Santa María de la Asunción, Viana, Navarre, Spain

Did anything distract you?
I had been walking with a German pilgrim in his 30s for much of the day, and had been trying to get rid of him as he was depressing and edgy and clingy, but to no avail. We walked into the church to have a look around (having lost track of the days of the week, and we were surprised to see that it was Sunday), only to be told to find seats quickly as the service was to begin. The church had filled up so we trotted, packs and perspiration and all, to the gospel side, and sat at the base of a pillar.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Unlike anything I had ever seen. Apparently a university baroque orchestra had been brought in by the council and provincial government for a concert that afternoon, and it had been determined that they would play at the mass as well. So along with parishioners who were there for the principal Sunday mass, there was also a gaggle of concert goers. Cheerful formality and close attention both to the music and the service was in the air. A bit of Bach's First Brandenburg Concerto brought the clergy in; Boccherini's Passacaglia for the gradual; Caccini's Ave Maria for the communion; and Boccherini again with his Retirata for the exit processional. There was no smoke, but a priest and deacon served along with two older clerics.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – More of an address. Perhaps I am being generous out of gratitude, as his Castilian was clear and distinct.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We were told that today's mass featured an orchestra to support the worship, and we should be grateful to the council for their courtesy. After a paragraph or two about Our Lady (specifics not grasped by me), the priest reminded us that it was the season for the harvest of the grapes. This gift of providence was the foundation for their prosperity, but we needed to remember that wine could be a curse as well as a gift. As well, we must be grateful for the work of the many foreigners in the vineyards and remember to treat them with respect and brotherhood. We must put ourselves in their place and think of how strangers are grateful for a gentle word and the hand of welcome.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Well, what wasn't?

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
At one point during the service, my German companion, whom I had been trying to shake, began to cry. He later told me that his wife had died that year of cancer, that he was walking for her, that she loved music, and that he wished that she were here, and that maybe she was. I felt ashamed and embarrassed to have been so grumpy toward him.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The concert proper was to begin, so we scampered out, lifting our grimy packs to our grimy backs.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Overwhelmed by the experience, my German friend and I walked into a restaurant and had a tremendous Sunday lunch. A posse of the musicians were at a neighbouring table. On the way out, the German went over and thanked them, telling them that their hard work at practising was rewarded, and that their music that day had been a gift for him. They were puzzled at the strength of his emotion, but clearly realized that it came from somewhere deep, and their response was as gracious as their playing. One of the cellists (a striking young woman with chestnut hair) stood and gave us a toast in mixed German and Spanish, to the effect that it was a privilege for them to play at this church, the German's sincere remarks gave them much pleasure, and that they would be grateful if we could remember them in Santiago.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
Well, this chain of events will never happen again, but I liked the feel of the place. Give it a 10.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
I had often been edified by music in services, but never before moved by it in this way. Several times, I held my breath at the wonder of it all.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Bach and Boccherini's religious music played in context and in worship, not in concert, in surroundings true to the period. And the delight and sorrow in the German pilgrim, and the faces of the musicians as he spoke to them in the restaurant. It all fit together. Time was nothing. We were in a good place.

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