Sunday, February 10, 2013

St Francis' Catholic Church

When I get up on a Sunday morning to go to church I think about two things. 
#1 I'm really impressed by people who do this every week. Don't they know they could be going out for breakfast?
#2 I did this every week for ten years. 

It's pretty easy to fall out of the habit of going to church. It's pretty easy to make Sunday you're laziest day of the week. It's pretty easy to sleep in, eat hash browns and walk the dog.  Going to church is a commitment. It's a discipline. And you have to respect anyone who does it - for those reasons alone. 

When I decided I would go to a Catholic church this week, because I don't personally know any Catholics here in Melbourne, I took to Google. I quickly found the website for St Francis', Victoria's oldest Catholic church. I learned the 11am mass had a choir, and their address. That was enough info for me. What I didn't notice in the finer print, was that St Francis' is "is the busiest church in Australia, with forty-three masses and over 10,000 visiting worshippers each week."

I arrived at 10:55am. People were rushing inside the church as the 10am congregants were rushing out. It was the most bustling, alive church I'd ever seen. I got handed an order of service, but without eye contact or a "Good morning". There were simply too many bodies to move quickly for any dillydallying. People know their way around here, and they assume you do too. Actually, they don't even notice you to see if you may need help. They just don't have time too. 

I'd been in the door twenty seconds when I realised how out of place I was. People were taking water to their heads from bowls or dishes. They were bowing and kneeling and crossing their chests as they entered the hall. I became very nervous that my ignorance may result in offense I didn't want to do anything wrong, but I couldn't pretend I knew what I was supposed to be doing. And there was certainly nobody I could ask. 

I sat towards the back, not wanting to be in the way, but I was forced to squeeze over three times to make room for more people. The church filled up fast. People stood in the isles. Nobody engaged with anyone. I got the sense quite quickly these people know what they came for, and that's what they were doing. 

A brass band warmed up and I could smell burning. My TV knowledge of the Catholic church assured me not to worry, it was unlikely anything was on fire that wasn't supposed to be, but because the hall was so full I could hardly see what was happening. An announcement was made that the procession was about to commence and for all congregants to keep their personal items with them at all times. This warning made me feel sad, as surely this was a consequence of being a large church in the centre of the city. Not all your visitors had pure intentions.

As the choir and several other people entered the church, I began to feel like I was having the most religious experience of my life. A massive organ filled the hall with sound. The timpani were banging and the choir were belting out in worship. It felt epic.

To give you a sense of how out of place and ignorant I was feeling at this stage, I recognised one of the hymns from an episode of Mr Bean. People kept coming, and coming. Where were they all parked? They hadn't been on my tram. I knew now, this was the biggest church I'd ever been in. I was beginning to wish for some personal space, especially as the young girl next to me kept reading my notes over my shoulder. In her defence -I was the only person there with a notebook. 

While the choir performed I took in my surrounds. The paintings of Jesus threw me. He didn't look like a saviour, like the hero they were singing about. He looked defeated. He looked afraid.

We were read to from the gospel of Luke, 5:1-11. Reverend Dr Pat Negri then took to the pulpit to deliver a short message, but the most shocking I've ever heard. I was so excited to be in the congregation for this moment. 

The Reverend Dr spoke of how Simon Peter trusted Jesus more than his own experience. Simon was a fisherman, and knew it was hopeless to cast his net during the day. But he did what Jesus told him to do and they caught so many fish their nets began to break. Simon Peter was a humble man, an honest man, and he fell at Jesus' knees acknowledging his own sinfulness and begging Jesus leave him. Jesus had no intention of leaving Simon Peter - he doesn't mind having a sinner for a companion. 

Reverend Dr Negri then turned his attention to the scandal of the Catholic church. They have been too slow to admit their guilt, but should follow the example set by Simon Peter. He said that while the church felt deep sorrow over the harm done to the small children, they never displayed this grief in public. And that was wrong. 

He said the public expect the church be perfect, a sinless bride of Christ. That the clergymen stand on pedestals, displaying no signs of weakness. But how far this was from reality.

He called the church to a time for renewal and integrity. For without the forgiveness of Christ, they were nothing. 

I felt sad for the Reverend Dr and for his congregants. How much guilt they must feel for decisions that were not their own. How they must stand loyally to an institution which has not acted loyally to others. I thought he spoke with sincerity and grace and felt honoured to be in his church while he spoke so humbly on matters so shameful. 

After the Reverend Dr spoke, the offering was collected. The message was a simple appreciation of people's generosity. I did notice that the congregants collecting the offering didn't pass the bags, they held on tight. Again I wondered what had happened here to make this church be so protective. 

As the church was called to pray, I awkwardly realised my foot rest was in fact a kneeling pad. I made the uncomfortable decision not to kneel, as I decided that while I wanted to be respectful, I also had to be honest with myself. I was secretly relieved however, when I looked around and noticed I wasn't the only person remaining in my seat. This does feel like a place where you can decide for yourself your level of involvement, and I was grateful for that. 

After the Lord's Prayer, there was a "sign of peace" which was my favourite part of the service. All the people sitting around me extended their hand to mine and said "peace be with you". It was the exact opposite of being welcomed by Planetshakers congregants three weeks earlier. It was incredibly genuine, and warm. 

I enjoyed watching the communion processional and again felt overwhelmed by the religious experience I was a part of. I realised however, there is a huge difference between a religious experience and a spiritual experience, and, without any disrespect to the lovely mass I was part of at St Francis' - this also may have been the least spiritual experience of my life. 

After mass, we were invited to leave. I suppose they have to say this, because of the thousand people waiting outside for the next mass, but I was sad that the experience was over for me here. I had so many questions about the church, but no one to ask. 

I'm pretty sure I know enough about Catholicism to know it will never be the religion for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by the mass I attended. Catholics may have a reputation for being judgemental, but in a hall that big, I was as welcome as everyone else. There was no show put on, no attempt to win me. They just did what they do, because that's who they are. I didn't find it cold, I found it refreshing. 

I can understand why this is Australia's busiest church. St Francis' doesn't feel like a club or a cult. It feels like somewhere you'd grow up, and you'd just stay. You don't need to aspire to be a clergyman, or the next Pope. You don't need to be more than you are. You can come late, or leave early. You can come once a week, a month, or to all forty-three masses. 

And I think I'm curious enough to go again.


1 comment:

  1. I love how you write things not only how you see them but also as they are
    Another great insite!