A Brisbane City Icon
Today I’m visiting a Brisbane city icon: St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Set amongst the high rises of the CBD, the cathedral’s Gothic style architecture stands out. It was the first Catholic Church in Brisbane and is now the oldest church in Queensland.
There are three services available on a Sunday: 8 am Mass, 10 am Solemn Mass and a 12 pm Mass. I am attending the 10 am Solemn Mass.
As a non-Catholic, I was definitely curious about the difference between Solemn and regular Mass so I did a little research first to ensure I didn’t do anything to embarrass myself at the service.
A Solemn Mass is a service where the words are mostly sung. Incense is burnt as a sort of prayer or gift to God throughout the service and is waved over objects of significance (the Bible, the altar, the cross etc). It is full of ritual and tradition.
The Solemn Mass Service
I arrive 20 minutes early (highly unusual) and I consider leaving to go for a walk to kill some time. But as I sit observing and experiencing the atmosphere, I realise that this time is very sacred for the people already here and I feel a little privileged to witness their reflections and prayers.
There’s an air of authenticity as people silently enter, bow or curtsey before the crucifix, take their seats and pray.
An older couple a few rows in front of me are kneeling in their pew, their heads bowed in prayer. The man has clearly just had surgery or suffered an injury: his head is partly shaved and the stitches are showing.
There is a genuine spirituality in these silent, personal moments.
There are no projectors inside the church. Catholics are well rehearsed in their liturgy – they know the songs, responses and prayers well so there is little need to project the words. A songbook is provided for those who want it.
There are many customs I am unfamiliar with:
- Holy water is at the entrance, people dip their fingers in it and make the sign of the cross
- People kneel or curtsey whenever walking up to, or past, the crucifix.
- At various times during the service people make the sign of the cross and I can’t remember if it’s left or right first.
I am a foreigner in these lands. Whilst I don’t feel unwelcome, I do feel slightly out of place.
The service begins with the sound of a bell. A procession of ministers and the choir enter the church. They are singing and waving incense as they walk around the room.
When they take their place at the front of the church, we respond by singing the words printed on our sheets. We have been standing for around 15 minutes by the time the rituals and songs are completed.
This week’s reading is from Matthew 28: 16-20
16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshipped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
The Archbishop Mark Coleridge delivers his sermon amongst the wafting incense. He is surprisingly relatable for a man wearing a large odd hat and carrying a hooked staff.
Although the week’s reading is on the commissioning of the disciples, the sermon is focused on the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The 25th May marks 40 days since the resurrection and this apparently is when Jesus ascended into heaven.
Archbishop Coleridge says that beginnings and endings often have a similar feeling. While the ascension marked the end of Jesus’ bodily presence in the world, it was also the beginning of a promise that we too would one day join Jesus in his home with God.
He speaks of heaven as a home we are all journeying towards, and even those that are homeless have a home with God.
It seems a lovely sentiment at first, but I don’t know how practical this promise is for the homeless. In fact although Archbishop Coleridge delivers a simple and hopeful sermon about reaching our home with God, he makes no reference to God’s role or our role in this life: right here, now, on Earth.
It is a traditional perspective, that the ultimate goal is heaven. God (and therefore Jesus) are separated from humans, they are “up there” (after all the word ascended literally means to rise upwards) while we are “down here”. We are on a journey to one day meet God and that can only happen through Jesus. He says:
We know where we are going and we know how to get there… The only way for the human being (every human being) to get home is to follow Jesus.
But there is no reference to what following Jesus means, because the traditions and rituals are not about what Jesus did or said, they are entirely about whether he was the Son of God and whether we believe it. Believing is the way to the ultimate goal of heaven. Following his teachings in this world now is not a focus in the traditional view.
Then he utters the words that nearly every minister says every Sunday: the world is drowning in bad news and desperately needs the good news, now more than ever.
There hasn’t been a time in history when this world was at peace. Do we really need the good news now more than ever? Probably not, but I’m sure priests and ministers have been using that line for centuries.
The sermon closes, a collection is taken and preparations for communion are made. As a protestant I won’t partake in communion as per the Catholic expectation. There are a number of prerequisites for receiving communion in a Catholic church and I’m not sure I would meet many of them.
I certainly don’t believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine literally become Jesus’ body and blood. So I’ve already failed one requirement.
A Recommended Experience
Despite clearly disagreeing with elements of the sermon, I found the experience to be positive on the whole. The service was solemn, quiet and meditative.
Although I certainly won’t be converting to Catholicism, the rituals were fascinating to watch. If you have never experienced a Catholic service, I would recommend this beautiful building as a great place to soak up the traditions of a denomination that is nearly 2000 years old.
Name St Stephen’s Cathedral | Denomination Catholic | Location Brisbane CBD, QLD | Minister Archbishop Mark Coleridge | Service Day & Time Sunday 10:00 am | Date 28/05/17
St Stephen’s Cathedral: http://cathedralofststephen.org.au/
Catholic Church in South East Queensland: https://brisbanecatholic.org.au/