St Joseph’s Cathedral, San Diego, California, USA

St Joseph's Cathedral, San Diego, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: St Joseph's Cathedral
Location: San Diego, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 August 2009, 9:00am

The building

A large Spanish Mission style church dating from 1940, built into one of the hillsides that characterize this section of San Diego. Colonnades separate the side aisles from the long, tall nave. Behind the large marble free-standing altar is a tall curtain topped by a round stained glass window depicting St Joseph instructing the boy Jesus at his knee. A large crucifix hangs from the center of the curtain, and the bishop's throne sits in front. The Blessed Sacrament is reserved at a side altar. There are clerestory windows as well as some good stained glass, although one or two of those are somewhat dramatic - for example, in one window Mary Queen of Heaven is borne up by angels who look like they would welcome a rest break.

The church

The diocese of San Diego became separate from the diocese of Los Angeles in 1936. Bishop Cantwell of Los Angeles had made a special effort to minister to the large Hispanic population of southern California. However, the first bishop of San Diego, a cleric named most inappropriately Charles F. Buddy, regarded the Hispanics as a burden to the diocese and derided their liturgical customs as "peculiar" and "meaningless." During his 30-year reign, Bishop Buddy became infamous for closing missions and assigning Spanish-speaking priests to non-parochial duties, and yet wondered in writing why "the faith is weak in southern California." Hispanic-American San Diegans took to crossing the border into Mexico for baptisms, first communions and confirmations, and many left the Catholic Church altogether. Although the diocese today sponsors an active outreach to the Hispanic community, some observers feel that Bishop Buddy's tactics resulted in irreversible damage to Hispanic-Catholic relations.

The neighborhood

The cathedral is located just north of downtown in an area of new and refurbished apartment buildings mixed in with budget-priced hotels very popular with tourists. One senses that the neighborhood is trying hard to gentrify itself, although homeless people like to congregate around the cathedral.

The cast

The Revd Gil Gentile, SJ, supply priest.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

I counted about 750 seats. The cathedral was about two-thirds full. People filled in the pews from front to back. It was mainly a young to middle-aged crowd, men and women in equal numbers.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

A lady at the door smiled and said, "Good morning. Welcome to St Joseph's. Have you been here before?"

Was your pew comfortable?

Yes. A plain wooden pew without cushions, but quite comfortable.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly. Some people, mainly women, were praying in front of various statues and portraits, touching them and holding out their hands in entreating gestures ("I told you so!" I could almost hear the ghost of Bishop Buddy say). A man approached me asking for money, and then went and paused for a moment at each of the candle racks, glancing furtively about him. I was pretty sure he was wondering if he could get away with taking some money out of them.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning and welcome to St Joseph's Cathedral."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The paperback Today's Missal, Large Print Edition, and Today's Missal, Music Issue, both in a blue plastic binder. The hard-bound Ritual Song was also in the pews. When hymn numbers were announced, there was no indication of which book they were being taken from.

What musical instruments were played?

Grand piano to the right of the sanctuary, in good tune, played competently but quietly by a young gentleman. There was also a lady cantor. The two of them sang harmony during some of the hymns. The pipes of an old organ could be seen up in the gallery, but the instrument remained silent, as I suspect it has for some time.

Did anything distract you?

Whenever anyone crossed the sanctuary behind the altar, they bowed not to the altar but to the back wall. What were they reverencing? The bishop's throne? The crucifix hanging on the curtain (there was no crucifix on the altar)? Also, there was a very handsome young man sitting behind me who, I sensed, was taking an interest in my note-taking.

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

A very nicely done novus ordo mass. There were two candles flanking (not on) the altar and six tall candles on shelves at the rear of the sanctuary. The entrance procession consisted of the crucifer (who doubled during the mass as a server) in cassock and surplice, a lay reader in street clothes, and the celebrant in a long green chasuble that reached almost to the floor. The Gloria was recited, not sung, although the Sanctus and Agnus Dei were sung. Bells were rung at the elevation. The exchange of peace was heartfelt but reserved. People did not hold hands during the Lord's Prayer, but they did elevate their hands in the orans position. We received communion under the species of bread only.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

11 minutes.

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

8 – Father spoke from the pulpit in a friendly, relatively informal style, and glanced down at his notes only occasionally.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Decisions, decisions - we have so many to make. This is a result of God's gift to us of free will. Sometimes we regret our decisions, and sometimes we renege on them. Sometimes we need to renew our resolve, especially regarding decisions we have made to obey the Word of God. Couples often renew their marriage vows on significant anniversaries. We renew our commitment to God every day through prayer and the eucharist. We should follow the example of Mary, who did not hesitate to accept God's will.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The music was not to my liking - Singing Nun type ditties, although the well-known round "Seek ye first" was a pleasant treat. But I must admit that both the pianist and cantor were talented and did their part with solemn dignity - none of this loud rock concert stuff. Congregational participation was weak, though.

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

I thought that Father took some liberties during the eucharistic prayer, e.g. "The night before he died, Jesus was having supper with his friends" I had never heard those words, or others like them, before. Why cant the priest just read the words that are prescribed?

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

Most people remained until the last verse of the closing hymn had died out. After that, they applauded the musicians and then left rather quickly. I was hoping that the young man behind me would tap me on the shoulder and ask, "Pardon me, but aren't you Amanda B. Reckondwyth?" But alas, he left rather quickly as well.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

"Coffee, donuts and love" were announced as being on offer in the cathedral basement. The coffee was hot and tasty but served in a rather small styrofoam cup. There was a goodly assortment of donuts, crullers and bear claws; I asked for a strawberry glazed donut. I was hoping for a serving of love, but I guess they had run out - "my" young man was nowhere to be seen.

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

5 – I don't really have anything negative to say about the cathedral, but I didn't feel particularly inspired either.

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

I suppose so, on balance.

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

The man who asked me for money and then visited the candle racks.

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