Christ the Light, Oakland, CA (Exterior)

Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cathedral of Christ the Light
Location: Oakland, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 April 2016, 12:00pm

The building

Dedicated in 2008, it replaced the original Cathedral of St Francis de Sales, which was irreparably damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The building is in a modern abstract style and was designed by the San Francisco branch of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, one of the modern world's premiere architectural firms, responsible for hundreds of well known buildings worldwide. The concrete-and-glass exterior blends in well (some say too well) with the adjacent modern office towers. The shape has been likened to that of a bishop's mitre. The interior walls are composed of panels of louvered wood and glass rising skyward. It is quite striking, bathed in natural light filtering through the louvers. The eye is drawn to a 58 foot tall image of Christ over the altar, created with carefully perforated aluminum panels and reproduced from a sculpture over the Royal Portal at Chartes Cathedral. Clever illumination makes this visible from the exterior at night. The cathedral complex includes a lakeview plaza popular with lunching downtown workers and lake walkers, a garden dedicated to the healing of clergy abuse survivors, underground parking, a mausoleum, a cafe and bookshop, a conference center, and offices including the diocese chancery.

The church

This is the mother church of the approximately 550,000 Catholics living in the diocese. It has a full mass schedule in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. (The mass I attended had some Tagalog music, as well, for the large Filipino community in attendance.) It is open to to the public most days for sightseers and private prayer and maintains an active greeter and docent ministry. They run free health and legal clinics to serve the needs of Oakland's poor. Members of the parish appear to be involved in other local ministries, especially to the homeless, as well.

The neighborhood

Oakland is a busy port city across the bay from San Francisco. American novelist Gertrude Stein, who was raised in Oakland, once wrote of it that "there is no there there." But modern-day Oakland is known for advocating environmental-friendly sustainability practices as well as for political activism and ethnic diversity. The cathedral is in downtown Oakland on the shores of Lake Merritt, a tidal lagoon that is both a popular park and recreation area and an urban wildlife refuge. The central location is at one of the "corners" of the lake, where the downtown business/skyscraper district merges with the trendy and bustling "mixed use" Uptown neighborhood and a leafy residential district.

The cast

No names of the celebrant/preacher or of the numerous lay assistants were provided in the bulletin and I was too shy to ask by the time I left.

What was the name of the service?

Parish Mass

How full was the building?

People were spread out but the (large) building was about half full by the time communion started.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

The person handing out programs gave me a cheerful greeting. After the service, a lady complimented me on my outfit.

Was your pew comfortable?

Modern wood pew, very comfortable, curved to meet the space, with very well-padded kneelers.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

A mild but friendly buzz: people arriving, settling in, greeting friends.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good afternoon, and welcome to the Cathedral of Christ the Light."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Breaking Bread 2016 songbook.

What musical instruments were played?

Piano. The church has a fine modern organ as well, but it remained silent at this service.

Did anything distract you?

I was definitely admiring the architecture and features. I just couldn't take my eyes off either the ceiling or the large Christ window, whatever else was happening (the latter might not count as a "distraction" under the circumstances).

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

Non-clappy contemporary Catholic.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

9 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – The preacher spoke clearly and with excellent and engaging expression. If he looked at his notes, I didn't see that.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

He preached, and well, on the gospel of the day. Christ comes at us through locked places. It takes us a while to unravel what happened at Easter and learn how to live with the risen Christ in our lives. Engage actively with those who are suffering in our community and in the world.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

It is a really beautiful space. The architect has said that he tried to create an effect of dappled/filtered forest light in the interior and I think he succeeded. I felt bathed in light and love.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

I'm used to singing congregations, so being in one where very few people were singing was odd. The 20+ voice choir was doing an excellent job but sounded a bit lost and muddled in the big space. The congregation joined in enthusiastically on a couple of favorites, but otherwise – *crickets.*

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

At the end of the mass, someone thanked everyone for attending and invited everyone for refreshments in the parish hall, but did not make clear how to find the parish hall in the large cathedral complex. I was one of the last people out (I was trying to get a discreet picture of their paschal candle – it had the cathedral logo on it) so was not able to follow the thundering herds to the food, and I was too shy to approach someone and ask. This might be an opportunity for what appears to be a welcoming congregation.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

I went to the gift shop instead and purchased some items.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

7 – I am not a Roman Catholic, but if I were, I would consider membership here. I might very well visit again just to be in the space.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

Being surrounded by light, and thinking about what it means to live with the Resurrection.

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