Our Lady of Lourdes, Rivonia, Sandton, South Africa


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Our Lady of Lourdes
Location: Rivonia, Sandton, South Africa
Date of visit: Wednesday, 26 February 2020, 6:00pm

The building

A large octagonal building of light-coloured brick, with slender concrete interior columns. The lightness of the place is further enhanced by clerestory windows. There is a large rear gallery, which does not dominate the rest of the church. The sanctuary area, however, is anaemic and lacks a strong focus to draw the eye onward. This is a new church consecrated in 2018 shortly after its completion, replacing an earlier barn-like version.

The church

The parish has a flourishing youth group. Among its concerns is feeding the many underprivileged people of Johannesburg who struggle to survive. It comprises people from the many races and ethnic backgrounds of Johannesburg.

The neighborhood

With the decline of Johannesburg city centre, many businesses and offices have moved to the northern suburban city of Sandton. Rivonia is one of Sandton's most prosperous neighbourhoods. Many of the apartment and town house complexes are gated and guarded, in response to South Africa's crime problem. Young adults flock to live here because of its hip and vibrant mix of restaurants, clubs and sports facilities.

The cast

The priest in charge, a man of strong presence, led and preached.

What was the name of the service?

Ash Wednesday Mass, with imposition of ashes.

How full was the building?

The church can seat around 900 people, but given that the gallery was full as well as the nave, and that there were others standing, there must have been close to 1000 people attending. (My photograph, taken at an early stage, does not reflect the numbers.) There had been earlier masses at 6.30am and 8.00am.

Did anyone welcome you personally?


Was your pew comfortable?

Superbly comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

Given the numbers, the atmosphere was surprisingly quiet and prayerful. An occasional childish voice was soon hushed. South African parents do not do indulgence.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

A lector welcomed us and reminded us to silence our cell phones, then told us that imposition of ashes would take place at the end of mass. The entry procession then took place as we sang the first hymn and ultimately the celebrant began with the Sign of the Cross.

What books did the congregation use during the service?

Hymns were projected onto a screen.

What musical instruments were played?

A mighty organ – invisible to me – swelled to good effect. In addition, to the left of the congregation a choir of parishioners supported the singing. But the congregation sang anyway. Nearly all the hymns (like the service itself) were in English, but during the two hymns in Zulu the volume of singing notably diminished as the whites struggled with the words.

Did anything distract you?

I kept on admiring how well-dressed this congregation was. Apparel varied by age groups and races, but nearly always in the very best of taste.

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

It was a straightforward Catholic mass with hymns. A lot of hymns. Catholic churches in South Africa seem to abhor silence in mass.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

7 minutes.

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

8 — The celebrant had a powerful voice and great presence, necessary perhaps in such a large building.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

The preacher referred to the responsorial psalm (51, but numbered 50 in Catholic usage), in which we had implored God's mercy because we had sinned. This, he said, had been written by King David at a time when he was ashamed of his adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. But David's faith was in a God of mercy. Like him, we need to acknowledge our sins and seek the loving forgiveness of God, and make this Lent a season of spiritual renewal.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

I was moved to tears at the sight of so many people of different races, tribes and languages united in worship. To name a few: Africans of black and white descent. Indians, both Goan and Keralan. Filipinos. Chinese. Singing together and coming to the Bread of Life. It gave me hope for the country.

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

Well, I was astonished at the claim that David wrote the psalms. No reputable biblical scholar today would believe that David wrote all of them – perhaps half at best. I was also irritated that at communion, ushers slowly moved up the aisle to guide people out pew by pew for communion. This is an Anglican practice that I was surprised to find in a Catholic church and regarded as unnecessary. However, there were no ushers at the end of mass when the ashes were imposed by the celebrant and five lay ministers. The result was a free-for-all that took far longer than it should have.

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

The resulting melee at the imposition of ashes made it difficult to exit the church, and I was only too glad to struggle out into fresh air. The traffic jam in the large car park then meant that we sat stationary for 15 minutes.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

None available and none expected. We went to a local fish restaurant. In keeping with the readings, we should have washed the ash cross off our foreheads at once, but it was fun spotting the others who had come to the same place after mass.

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

9 — It was a joy to worship in such inclusive company.

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


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

The sense of unity across racial boundaries. And the traffic jam in the car park.

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