What I learnt from 46 consecutive days in church
Broadcaster Adrian Chiles recently set himself a challenge - to go to church every day for more than a month, and never the same one twice. Why?
For the Lent just gone by, I resolved to go to church every day. I'm a Catholic, so it would be Mass every day for more than a month. It felt like it would be a real struggle - a penance. It turned out to be anything but. It was a rich and enriching experience - spiritually, obviously, but I was also enraptured by the churches themselves, the communities they serve, and the people with whom I shared all those Masses.
I made it extra hard for myself by undertaking to go to a different church every day, so by Easter Sunday I'd been before 46 different priests in 46 different churches in 46 days. Someone pointed out to me at around the 35-priest mark that even the Pope probably hadn't heard Mass said by so many different priests in so many different churches in such a short space of time.
From day one, Ash Wednesday, I was captivated. I happened to be in the Swansea area, so I went to St Illtyd's in Port Tennant, a neat little community with rows of terraced houses clinging to the side of a very steep hill overlooking the bay. In every church I went to on this odyssey, without fail there was something to entrance me. It could be anything from the priest's trainers - priestly footwear is something I could write a whole article about - to the majesty of a stained glass window. At St Illtyd's it was the statue outside of Christ on the cross. It was made from some metal that had corroded, kind of creating new stigmata on it. Transfixed, I looked up at it for what must have been ages, until I spotted a couple of teenagers just across the road, cigarettes in mouths, beholding me doubtfully.
Other random Mass moments that will never leave me include the Polish lady next to me one Tuesday morning in Our Lady of Grace and St Edward's in Chiswick. She held a tiny passport-sized photo in a miniature, gilded frame. I took it to be her mum. With tenderness almost unbearable to behold, she occasionally stroked her face.
On a Friday lunchtime at St Patrick's in Soho Square I chose my pew, but before my bottom touched the seat I sprang back up in alarm as I realised there was someone in a sleeping bag motionless at my feet. I looked around at the rest of the congregation but no-one else seemed very concerned, so I shrugged inwardly, knelt and prayed for him, or it may have been a her. Who knows?
Then there was the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Catherine of Alexandria in Droitwich Spa. If you're passing, do go and see the mosaics: they are simply breathtaking. The priest's sermon referenced something about a trip across a lake in India. Walking through the dark churchyard after the service, a lady behind me said to her friend: "That was good; you don't think of them having lakes in India, do you?" Oddly, I knew what she meant.
At Sacred Heart in Fareham at 7am one Wednesday morning, I sighed a little as an impossibly ancient lady in a woolly hat stepped forward to do the reading. This could take a while, I thought. But it turned out that in her younger days she could only have been an actor or Radio 4 newsreader. Her voice, clear as a church bell, sang out. I swear even the angels and cherubs around us cocked a pleased ear.
My loudest involuntary snort of laughter came in St David's Priory in Swansea. I was having a crafty Google of St David's Wikipedia entry. It turned out his miracle came to pass at Llanddewi Brefi where, I read, the ground on which he stood is reputed to have risen up to form a small hill. A Welsh scholar called John Davies was quoted as writing that "one can scarcely conceive of a miracle more superfluous in that part of Wales than the creation of a hill". Brilliant.
Wherever I went in the country, and most of my Masses were in London, Birmingham, Swansea and Manchester, it was striking how similar the congregations were at weekday Masses. There's no getting away from it: the average age must be somewhere in the seventies. At 48, I spent most of this spring feeling like a spring chicken. But there was also invariably a young family of Asian origin, usually with young children. And at the 7am Masses in Central London there was the odd go-getter, who strode out after Mass was ended as if they had hedge funds to run. They probably did.
So, a mixed bag, as were the priests. A third of them I found to be great, with a handful quite life-changingly brilliant. Another third were sort of OK. The rest were pretty hopeless, not least because I often couldn't actually hear what they were saying. And a handful were grumpy to the point of malevolence.
Spiritually, if I'm to really "connect" at Mass, I need a good priest to help me. And by good I mean, first and foremost, that they should look pleased to be there and pleased that we're there. Often they speak of great "joy" while looking as bored as swimming pool attendants.
Secondly, with the liturgy - essentially the same script which they do day in, day out - the best of them find a way of making it sound fresh. As the inestimable Father Paul Addison of Our Lady of Delours in Kersal put it to me: "The clue's in the word; communion is all about communicating." And the same is obviously true of the sermon. One of the beauties of daily Mass is, frankly, its brevity - invariably less than half an hour. Sometimes the sermon is dispensed with altogether, but often it just takes the form of a thought or two, which I find much easier to get my head round than one of Sunday's lengthy orations.
My favourite ever came from my first priest (I'm a convert), a Father Terry Tastard, a man with an unforgettable name in the happy habit of delivering pretty unforgettable homilies. At one weekday Mass he simply said: "How is it that we're always so keen for others to change when we're so reluctant to change ourselves." That was years ago, but I think about it often. As I'll always think back to this Lent as one of the most rewarding and quietly intense 46 days of my life.
Adrian Chiles spoke to BBC Radio 4's PM on 20 May about the ways Mass is celebrated.
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