The Old West in a New Building?

PArramatta Cathedral / december 8, 2018

—Stephen Burns.

St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Cathedral is a breathtaking space, among the very best of new church architecture anywhere in the world. Another Exploring Liturgy post featured some photographs of its interior, and this one includes a few more pictures, taken on my visit to the cathedral on December 8, 2018.

Above: images of the font. (All photos in this post by Stephen Burns.)

I attended the vigil mass on Saturday evening, and arriving early encountered a lively group of young musicians playing on guitars in the gigantic nave of the building. It turns out they were rehearsing not for the upcoming liturgy but for the carol service which would immediately follow on from mass, which in turn would lead into a barbeque in the cloister onto which one side of the nave looks out. The carols would evidently be in a guitar-driven folk mood. It sounded like Sufjan Stevens.

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As others began to gather, the large space filled to about two-thirds capacity—so several hundred people—with folks scattered around the inclined benches eight-deep along the north and south walls of the buildings. Once the liturgy began, I was reminded of how though the space is spectacular—open, airy, drenched in light, and yet focused and strongly orientated to the central things of altar and ambo while keeping the assembly always in full view—the acoustics are not consistently so good. So when readers did not have a microphone, or stand away from one, their voice can descend into a mumble in the distance. And if lectors or presiders speak quickly, their voice can morph into indistinct drone. This is a shame, as the dean, without a note in his hand, made an address that drew in every scripture reading, recalling its details, and turning it out towards listeners’ lives, always returning to the urge to “deepen awareness of the things of God.” The dean had also dedicated the best part of his page-long column in the weekly bulletin to exposition of the biblical readings of the day, and without simply repeating himself. And, for those so moved, there was for pick up on arrival or departure a homespun book of “Advent reflection”: a 16 A4-page booklet on the readings of just the first two Sundays of the season with “keys to the reading,” “commentary on the text,” “further information” of historical and contextual detail, and “questions” for personal reflection and lectio divina—e.g. “desert, paths, valley, mountain, hill, winding ways, rough roads: what is the significance of the images to better understand Jesus’ activities?” It seemed that anyone wishing to engage with sacred scripture would be able to do so, one way or another, in this community.

Below: detail of a window in the narthex/devotional chapel.

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Above: Communion of saints tapestry, in the narthex/devotional chapel.

The mass itself was one of six across the course of the weekend—one of which would be in “extraordinary form,” i.e. Latin—with the usual weekly round including at least a daily mass, morning and evening prayer, eucharistic devotions, rosary, Christian meditation, and opportunity for confession. As I arrived, people were dotted around the narthex space—which is a small chapel with the tabernacle—waiting for dialogue with a priest or confession.

The large assembly at mass itself was evidently diverse, with persons of African, Asian, and Euro-descent all in evidence. Asian persons were in the majority, with perhaps Indian and Filipino ethnicities most represented. The age range was also very wide, from children (some dressed in party frocks, tiaras and reindeer ears, as if just come from a Christmas party) sometimes sat amidst their families, sometimes crawling about the pews, through to seasoned citizens to whom the eucharistic ministers brought the sacrament rather than them joining in the communion procession (itself a remarkable feat, with hundreds of people filing forward to receive the sacrament—most often, but not always, in both kinds: bread and wine—in a very short span of time). What was very striking, however, was that the elders were chiefly white, while the younger persons—the children and their families—were predominantly Asian. While it is not possible to draw strong conclusions from this observation, the singular snapshot of the demographic of the assembly raises interesting questions: at the very least, does each gathering across a weekend look like this? if so, there are very strong signs about the future of the church here. In terms of how the composition of the assembly was reflected in the leadership on this occasion: the priest was Anglo, the deacon Asian, the cantor a younger Asian woman, the intercessor an older white man, and the lectors Asian and Anglo, a woman and a man. What was then notable was that in this very mixed assembly, not a single concession was made to language other than English (including in song), nor many to ceremonial or symbols beyond what one might also have found in a remote European community, and one without the diversity of ethnicities gathered here. (The “abstract Aboriginal” glass in the narthex is one possible exception, but it is not in any case a feature of the liturgy as such.) While the assembly members may have expected no different from this—and there are all kinds of reasons, many contested, in Roman Catholic liturgical tradition as to why this would be so—as a visitor it was very striking indeed. At points, it seemed like this liturgy was imposing the old west, and oddly: in this new building… among this assembly gathered from all around the world...

Where diversity surfaced in the liturgy was in devotional expression. Almost all seemed to sign themselves with the cross at the various “triggers” to do so in the liturgy, some bowed (as invited by the order of service) at mention of the incarnation in recitation of the creed, some unfolded open hands in front of them in response to leader’s greetings like “The Lord be with you.” “And with your spirit.” At the Lord’s prayer, however, the ritual picture became unusually rich: some grasped for the hands of others around them as the “Our Father” was spoken in unison; others stood with arms extended outwards, arms in parallel to the floor; others lifted hands close to their face, as if making a container, or amplifier, for their prayer; others again raised their arms more expansively, just above their heads. It is impossible for me to know if the postures adopted in any way reflected common practice in the cultures from which the diverse people came, but it was a striking moment when difference emerged, and did so beautifully.

Below: the tabernacle in the narthex chapel, on the right from the side;
oils and statue of Mary MacKillop.