One of the things we always enjoy when traveling is attending Mass in a new location. Several years ago while in Hawaii we attended a wonderful service in a small church on Kauai. It was warm and breezy so the windows of the little church were wide open. The crowd was overflowing so many people stood outside and watched leaning through the open windows. The music was wonderful with a Hawaiian choir singing at full volume filling the church with music that made it hard to sit still.
Twice now, Lance and I have attended Mass in French while visiting Paris. I encourage you to attend Mass in a language you don’t know if you have the opportunity. This is one of the hidden treasures of being Catholic. The Mass is universal and even in another language you always know what’s going on, and you can pray along in English if you like.
On our recent visit to Paris we debated where to attend Mass. Should we head over to the Cathedral of Notre Dame or just take it easy and find a church near where we were staying. We opted for the later and found the local neighborhood church. Now, as you can guess, you never really know what you’re going to get when you just show up at a random church, but you’ve got to be up for the adventure.
We found the church on a little side street, Notre-Dame de Grace or Our Lady of Grace. It was the traditional one aisle church where if you sit in the wrong spot your entire view is blocked by a giant pillar. It was very old with lots of ornate details. The pews, if any, had been removed and replaced with tiny wooden folding chairs. We found a seat and settled in. Running through my head was the decline of Mass attendance in Europe. In the last decade or so, Catholic countries like France, Spain and Italy have seen dramatic falls in regular Mass attendance. I wondered what the age and number of attendees would be. Would my three teenagers be the youngest in the crowd? I scanned the place and thought well there are over 100 chairs here so that must be a good sign. About five minutes before the start of Mass we had about 20-25 people gathered. Half looked retirement age, but there were a few families with younger children. I thought, that looks pretty good.
Then a man cheerfully climbed up to the microphone and with a smile waved his finger at us and delivered a message in French. Slowly our group of 20-25 gathered their belongings and started in exit the side of the church. It looked to us as if they were going elsewhere so we followed along down a short hallway. With a quick turn to the left we entered a wonderful wide open worship space that could hold several hundred in long pews. It was probably built in the 1970s with arched wood beams stretching across the ceiling. Ah, we were in the wrong church! The original church was probably now used as a chapel. It also looked like there was a school attached to this group of buildings. Quickly the church filled to beyond capacity. People were squeezing into the pews and standing along the walls. They must not have received the message about falling Mass attendance. Lots of families, lots of young children, and lots of grandparents. It was wonderful.
It was the celebration of the epiphany and still in the Christmas season. The opening song was easily recognized as O Come all Ye Faithful even though it was in French. There were no fewer than 10 altar servers assisting a 40ish priest and a 60ish deacon. The altar servers, in this case all boys, were a joy to watch. Three in their teens and clearly in charge. The younger boys jostled for the best seats at the side of the altar and looked like little birds waiting for a worm every time the older boys approached the altar to assist. They could not wait to be given an empty glass pitcher or dish to take back to the side table. This was serious business and they wanted their chance. One of the older servers was strictly in charge of the incense. Surprising to us, he blessed the deacon with incense before the Gospel and also the priest and congregation before the Liturgy of the Eucharist. We’ve only seen this done by the deacon or priest himself.
The homily was a bit challenging in French, but looked animated and we saw a lot of nodding heads. We prayed along our parts in English although a bit quietly so those around us would not really notice. After Mass everyone spilled out into an adjacent courtyard and visited with friends. Taxis squeezed through the narrow streets to pick up parishioners and some walked a short distance to the outside markets.
We left with smiles on our faces and joy in our hearts. The neighborhood came out in force to worship and celebrate the Mass. Prayer works in every language.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11