Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mystery Worshipper Report - "Ship of Fools" Style!

In keeping with the tradition of the great website Ship of Fools - I shall now put forth my best but all-too-feeble attempt to describe today's 9:00 A.M. Mass at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Banjara Hills, Hyderabad.  I will do my best not to say "Oh, my GOD!!" in every paragraph, so I'll just go ahead and say one BIG one, now!!

Oh, my God!!!!

I'm sorry, but there are no photos of the church this time around!  I purposely did NOT take my camera to Mass today.  I tend to stand out quite enough in these crowds, and there is a tendency for the locals to stare at the big Anglo-looking fellow, anyway - so - snapping photos during my first Holy Eucharist in India didn't seem quite so much like a good idea.  Besides, Bishop Williams taught me right!  I shall attempt, in the style of my hero, David Sedaris, to paint word-pictures of the scenes from earlier this day...

Our day started just as we had planned it.  It was actually the first "normal" weekend day we've had.  Suzanne's "regular" days-off are going to be Sunday and Monday - certainly different than we are used to at home, but I think we're going to settle onto a groove and get used to it.  Her shift during the weekdays will be 5:30 A.M, until 3:30 P.M.  - somewhat to coordinate the first hour-or-so with the West Coast and the Pacific Southwest Region - that's the stateside areas of: So. Cal. and AZ and I think the Las Vegas office with whom she will be doing much of her work.

From my loving wife... my Sunday morning "marching-orders" were quite simple: "Wake me up...and die!!"  We had gone to bed around 9:30 P.M. Saturday night, so I figured that she'd "sleep the clock around" and wouldn't even stir until after I had planned to return from Mass.

At exactly 4:30 A.M. I walked down the stairs with Beloved for her morning pee-run.  Standing on the front patio, waiting her to find the morning sweet-spot, at exactly 4:32 A.M. - - the first Muslim Adhan ("call to prayer") for Fajar ("at dawn") began to be broadcast over loudspeaker systems all over the city.  From mosques big and small, for both the Shi'a and Sunni alike, the large minaret-mounted woofers and tweeters shout out an amplified "Allahu akbar!!" for all within five miles to hear.  I think the closest small mosque to our house is about 3 kilometers.  I also have come to believe that the idea is "the smaller the mosque, the bigger the speakers"!  Kind of like the kid in South L.A. who has a primer-gray '73 Chevy Nova ... with a brand-new pair of $3,000.00 really-bass-y Harmon-Kardon speakers filling his trunk, which he plays so loudly that local shop-windows rattle!

Y'know...I have to wonder if Father Kelley at St. Mary of the Angels in Hollywood could get away with ringing the Angelus Bells every morning at 4:30?!?

For those of you who are not familiar with the Ship of Fools of their regular features is their "Mystery Worshipper" report - - this is where a person will go to a new (or different) church for the first time, and...using the form as developed and used by the SOF regulars - - the church is then "rated" (or, at least "described in great detail"!) for all to read.  My friend Bryan Miller turned me on to the SOF site many years ago, and I know that she has written several honest assessments herself (She is the classical music and opera critic for a large metropolitan daily newspaper in the Midwest - Jerome McAlister - you should meet her, as your blog is getting good!

Here, for what it is worth, is my official "Mystery Worshipper" review for my experience at my first Mass in Hyderabad, yesterday morning.  I have used the exact same format as the Ship of Fools uses!

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Mystery Worshipper: Fr. Scott E. Kingsbury

The church:  St. Alphonsus Parish in Banjara Hills, a suburb of Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India.  Named for the great Catholic Saint Alphonsus Maria Liguori, founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (the Redemptorists) in 1732.  When I first heard the name, I thought it was named "St. Alfonzo's" - -so I immediately thought of the great old Frank Zappa song: "St. Alfonzo's Pancake Pancake Breakfast"The parish is in the Diocese of Hyderabad and the Archbishop sits at the Cathedral of St. Joseph.  The current Archbishop (since the year 2000) is Archbishop Marampudi Joji.

Denomination: Roman Catholic.

Building:.  Nice, well-built and nicely painted on the outside...white pillars and the stucco is painted sort of a peachy-color.  Large courtyard with big iron gates.  Probably built in the 70's or 80's. Not huge, but a pretty good-sized church.  There are concrete step leading up to a large set of double front doors.  The doors open right into the rear of the nave and there is no real Narthex, although there is a table at the back where the Celebrant's chasuble and stole are laid-out before Mass.  The Holy Water stoops are actually on either side of the doors at the top step, built-into concrete font-stands.  Large letters over the door say "St. Alphonsus Church" - - so there can be no doubt you are in the right place!  More on the interior of the church below!

The church: There seem to be two congregations.  The early morning Sunday Mass is celebrated by one priest in the Telegu language - still the official language of the state of Andhra Pradesh. This Mass begins at 7:30 A.M. - and the English version is celebrated at - well...the stated time is "8:45 A.M.".  I actually arrived a little later than 8:45 - and - no surprise - the Telegu language service was still going on.  Although I didn't know it (they could have been in the middle of the homily for all I knew!) - it was just the weekly announcements being read from the pulpit!) - the actual Mass was over.  The Telegu group seems to take their shoes off, Indian-style at the outside door and leave them there.  There must have been 200 pairs of sandals and other footwear left all over the steps and lower courtyard.  Not wanting to offend on my very first day (I'm starting to take off my shoes at the front door of our home!) ...I slipped off my black New Balance walking shoes and left them outside the door as well.  I squeezed into the end of a pew in the was standing-room-only - but - I wanted a seat as it was like a steam bath inside.  I had brought a fistful of paper-towels along with me, folded in my pocket, so I could mop my head from time-to-time.  Just as soon as I sat down, the announcements were over - and everybody made for the door.  Not everybody, though.  A large number of the congregation paused to offer flowers, colorful votive candles and prayers at the foot of the statue of Our Lady which was to the left of the sanctuary as you faced the altar.

It soon becomes evident that one congregation is leaving while another congregation (the English-speaking one!) arrives.  Like and good catholic parish, altar guild ladies scurried about (dressed in nice saris !!) changing linens and altar ware.  The choir began to set up microphones and a keyboard (more later!) outside of the sanctuary "stage left".  I would say "Epistle Side" or Gospel Side" - but this is a Novus Ordo parish with the Celebrant facing the people - - so - that might get confusing!!  I had moved up to a pew near the front.  This didn't last long, as I noticed that all of the people filing-in were congregating in clusters under the fast-turning ceiling-fans overhead,  This dumb American chose to sit under the only fan in the nave that wasn't working!!  I moved back a few rows and parked directly under the fastest-spinning fan I could find.

The English-language congregation was still 90% Indian.  The pew-spaces in-between the clusters of "fan worshippers" began to fill up...and I noticed some people fanning themselves with today's bulletin.  I left my pew to go grab one, and noticed that people were grabbing service books (really a hymn book!) and Bibles.  The Bibles were never used.  I grabbed one of each.  Then I remembered!!

Hey...I saw "Slumdog Millionaire" three times before we came!!  There is a scene where the street-kids steal the nice shoes from outside the visitors entrance to the Taj Mahal.  There were dozens of beggars and street-kids milling outside of the gates and courtyard.  While I never had any real fear that somebody would steal my New Balance's - I slipped outside and put them on.  I had noticed that the English-speaking crowd was not nearly so diligent about "shoe removal" as the earlier group.  So at least I was not the only one who re-calced (is that even a word??)

The "8:45" English Mass actually began at around 9:05!  Who would have guessed that "St. Mary's Standard Time" is universal?!?!  (Sorry, Fr. Kelley, I couldn't resist!!)

The neighbourhood: Banjara Hills is one of the two upscale residential neighborhoods in Hyderabad.  Jubilee Hills being the other one...but B.H. is more urban and working-class and J.H. is more truly residential (i.e., gated communities) with nicer homes.  The actual street where the parish is located is Road No. 8 - - and St. Alphonsus High School is directly behind it, on Road No. 9.  You get to the church by taking Road No. 10 from our house, which is on Road No. 3.  Got it???

The cast: Mea maxima culpa...but although I introduced myself to the Celebrant when I re-entered after putting my shoes back on...I did not catch his name.  I informed him who I was and asked if it was O.K. if I made my Communion at his church.  He greeted me as a brother.  If I had one complaint to begin with it would be that there was no real "bulletin" - only those generic RCC "The Sunday Liturgy" bifolds.  There was no way to look for his name after the service when I went home.  I did ask if I could make an appointment for Confession....and asked if they had daily Mass.  Yes.  And, yes.  Mass is celebrated daily at St. Alphonsus at 6:30 A.M.!!  There were two altar boys (yes, they rang the Sanctus Bells with gusto...although, at least for this Ordinary Time Liturgy, the atmosphere was "smokeless" (Sorry to disappoint, Nancy Bluto!)...and the acolyte's vestments for the day were white albs, with "Kelly green" wide belt cinctures and a matching Franciscan-style monk's cowl with no hood.  Very cute kids!!  Another priest joined the sanctuary par-y to assist in the administration of Holy Communion, which went quite quickly, despite the fact that the church was packed with well-over 250 souls by Communion time.  Just like in the U.S....parishioners arrive late, some well-after the reading of the Gospel!  Gasp!!  Still....about 80% of the congregation received Communion.  More on the "choir" below!  There were lay-readers who read the lessons....classic Indian accents but very understandable and well-schooled in English, as so many of the people here are!!  The responses from the congregation were loud and clear and joyful!

The date and time: 20 June 2010, 9.00am.

What was the name of the service?  "Mass (English)"

How full was the building?  About 70% at the beginning....standing-room-only by the time the Sanctus was sung.  My best guess is 250-people-plus.

Did anyone welcome you personally?  Uh.  No.  But I got stared-at a LOT!  There were no "ushers" or "greeters" that I could see.....perhaps there were and I just arrived too early!  I did get a friendly smile and "good morning" from the young man who squeezed into the pew beside me.  I greeted a fellow-Yankee by asking her if she knew how to tell which hymn they were singing.  She had no clue either!

Was your pew comfortable?  Surprisingly - yes!  To look at them you might think, "Uh, oh!"  The pews are arranged in three sections, Epistle Side, Center and Gospel Side - - making two aisles.  Each pew is designed to seat three adults across, although many folks were "two-to-a-pew" - and kids could easily fit four-across.  The seat and back were wood - wide enough in the seat and tall enough in the back to give support....just about every one had a "dedication plaque" from some donor or family name. The kneelers were similarly all wood - - with zero padding!!  Think if pews were made by the company that made your classroom desks in high school.  That's what these pews were like...rugged, functional and built-to-last!!

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?  Quiet, very little chit-chat, reverent and prayerful.  People cam in, got situated, and said their prayers.  Some prayed the rosary, families with small children got them seated and calmed down (the cutest kids, I must say!!)  Women were dressed in their "Sunday-go-to-meetin' saris"...the men mostly "slightly less than business-casual" - pretty normal.

What were the exact opening words of the service?  "God is the strength of his people.  In him, we his chosen live in safety.  Save us, Lord, who share in your life, and give us your blessing; be our shepherd for ever."  (The "Entrance Antiphon" for the day)

What books did the congregation use during the service?  I wish I had taken note of the title of the "service book".  It was typical Novus Ordo stuff....with words to hymns but no music - - you know - - hymns of the very type that made Thomas Day write his classic book, "Why Catholics Can't Sing".  Anybody who knows me,  knows this...I am an Anglican.  And a Traditionalist.  There is nothing more beautiful looking, sounding, feeling or smelling than a Anglo-Catholic Solemn High Mass!  In my opinion, the Novus Ordo Mass and accompanying music is simply dreadful...although it can be done with reverence and with liturgical proficiency (for whatever that is worth!!)  Bible were provided, but never cracked.

What musical instruments were played?  Oh, dear!!!!  For this I shall have to turn to the notes I typed on my Blackberry during the sermon.  The choir had six members...all "younger" - four girls and two boys.  They had terrific voices and made the best of some pretty... ummmm... "iffy" musical selections.  The main instrument was a standard-issue electric keyboard.  Of course, the requisite "boom-chucka-boom" rhythm-track was set to "Conga" or sometimes "Rock-a-Billy".  Then there was the electric-guitar player. electric guitar.  But NOT just and electric guitar...the guy who played it wasn't a half-bad musician... but he played it in a country-western style!!  I kid you not!!  On some "hymns" he made it sound more like "Don Ho" than "Garth Brooks"...but over all - - it was pure country!!  The music was actually very sweet, joyful and sung with reverence and true zeal!  No hand-clapping....but you sho' 'nuff felt like tappin' yer foot or slappin' yer knee!!  Yeeee haaawww!

Now...the keyboardists affinity for the rhythm tracks on his instrument were bad enough....but during the closing hymn - - I swear that he added some kind of sound effect that was sort of half-way between the sound made by the "transporter" on the original Star Trek series and an electronic "blowing wind" effect.  Kind of like: "Sccchhhweeeeooooo....scccchhhweeeeoooo.....scccchhhweeeeooooo..." 

Did anything distract you?  ARE YOU KIDDING ME????  OMGDid anything distract me??  Let me count the ways:

The East wall had mosaic tiles just like the ones at St. Mary of the Angels...only just the ORANGE blue, gold or yellow.  On the front of the altar was a bas relief sculpture of DaVinci's "Last Supper" - - the altar looked as if it was cast-plaster...but very nicely done...not sloppy workmanship, that's for sure.  But in this Last Supper scene ....the Apostle's robes and tunics are all painted day-glow colors of red and blue and purple...and the faces are painted in what the Crayola crayon company once named "Flesh Tone" ...sort of a pinkish hue.  Four rows of white Christmas Lights surrounded the archway of the sanctuary apse - - the new-kind - LED encased in plastic strips - we wouldn't want to be tacky, now would we??   The beautiful wooden altar Crucifix is hand-painted ...and very large. Of course it is bordered by brightly-lit electric-laser-blue neon light tubing!!!  The Missal Stand had on the front piece (facing he nave) a red sign with big white letters that said "WORD OF GOD".  The Sanctuary Lamp was electric and glowed brightly.  The actual Tabernacle had a round red sign in front of it...with a Monstrance in gold... painted on the front.  And from behind the sign there were more neon lights...only in red.  It looked as if the Tabernacle was radioactive!!  The nave and Sanctuary are well lit...bare fluorescent-tube fixtures along the side walls (Stations of the Cross are installed backwards to the Traditionalist's eye!  Novus Ordo style!) - -nice chandeliers in the Sanctuary and ceiling fixtures throughout.  A first-rate sound system really helped out because the multiple ceiling fans were set to rotate on "HIGH" (Thanks be to God!!) and were noisy!   Lots and lots of flowers in the apse and around the statue of the Blessed Virgin. 

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?  Reverent, prayerful....JOYFUL!  No doubt whatsoever about the Real Presence of Christ at this Eucharist.  But I don't think He hung around much after Communion!!  A typical modern Roman Catholic Novus Ordo Mass....but - for the Southern Californians and Texans . . . think: "Mariachi Mass" - except without the Mariachi players and in their place, cute girl choristers dressed in silk saris ... a keyboardist who loves his sound-effects buttons...and a jolly Indian guitar player who thinks he's really Toby Keith!!!

Exactly how long was the sermon?  Twenty-five minutes.  A little long.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?  A solid "7".  I gave him and "A+" for diction and language skills.  Very easy to understand (which I'm afraid is not always so easy here in Hyderabad!)...but - he could have ended it at 15-minutes and been more effective.  He said all he needed to say and should have wrapped up.  But don't we all have that problem when we get on a roll!?

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?  Revolved around Jesus' question "Who do you say that I am?" - - and comparing Peter's answer to the answer given by the crowd.  Some questions were then put to the congregation: "Who do you say that Jesus is to you?  Who is Jesus to you?  How do you communicate your faith to the world around you?  This world needs Jesus Christ.  How can we as a parish and a people do a better job?"

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?  The fact that it was a valid Eucharist 8,700-miles away from different - - and yet, Jesus Christ was Truly Present in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar...and there is no better place to be here in this world...this Vale of Tears!!

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?  I wouldn't ever say that about any Christian worship service!!  But I could have done without the blue neon lights!!  I mean, come on!!  This is Trinitytide!!  At least break out the GREEN Neon!!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?  I recognized a French fellow who Amy and I had met at the HyTEA ex-pats dinner last Friday night at the Walden Club.  I chatted with him and another French ex-pat who works for IBM.  He was there with his three red-headed kids.  Yea...the group of us really stood out in the crowd.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?  There wasn't any.  People filed out and some mingled in the courtyard.  I chatted with my new French bon amis for about ten minutes...found out that there are more traditional parishes to be found in the city.  Outside the gates there were dozens of beggars - many armless or legless or deformed....all in rags...all with thier hands out and saying "Please, sir...please sir..."  - and making eating-motions with their hands, if they had hands.  It just breaks your could hardly not think of those hurting souls who followed Jesus from town to town wanting to be fed or healed.  We have been told by virtually everybody here to NOT give them any rupee - - but that they know where to go to get the church to help them...and help the church does!  Throughout the city!  It's sad but true...many of the beggars are sent to the squares and churches to beg for a central boss-man...and you are not supposed to encourage the begging.. But that doesn't mean it doesn't tear out your heart as a Christian...or as a human being!

Outside the gate, there was one particular man with sad-looking black eyes.  He was one of the ones sitting down with the huddle of of other cripples and begging with great animation....yet he had but one leg.  He got up quickly on his crutch as I passed by and began to follow me...(and I must say...for a one-legged guy, he could really move!!) - - he caught up to me as I was going to the car ... and he kept repeating behind me "Please, sir...please, sir..."  Of course, it was the unwise and tender-hearted part of this fat old Anglican Priest that wanted to reach into his wallet and give him 100 rupees just to get him off of his tail.  But when I got to the ever-protective driver Naseer shooed him away with a shout.  I got in the passenger side and locked the door (after almost getting in the wrong side and sitting on Naseer's lap!).  All the while, the one-legged man is outside knocking on the car-window with the arm-piece of his crutch...

Naseer said:  "Please, sir...don't give them any money."

"No, Dorothy....we're definitely not in Kansas any more!"

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?  I would have to say about a "6+ " It's so close-by may just become my regular parish out of pure proximity alone.  I'll check out several churches, of course.  But I would much prefer have MY Bishop (+Prakash) call me back or return any of the five e-mails I've sent him ... before I head out to the local Gurdwara and become a Sikh! 

Please.  If there are any readers of this blog who have any sway in the TAC, could'ya help a brother out??

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?  Amen!!  I may have joked around here...but to be honest, I fought back the tears throughout.

What is the one thing that you will remember about all of this in seven days' time? 



  1. It was like I was there! Great description.

    Add a potluck including the seemingly obligatory lime green jello with little Mandarin Orange slices and you have what passes for Lutheranism in many of the Lutheran churches I've visited or been a member of here in the states :) I'm happy you are settling in and I'll try to keep up with you through your blogged adventures.

    It's nice to know that you can at least find 'the basics' in your new, very foreign surrounds.

  2. This should be posted to Ship of Fools. Great stuff, especially that it was valid and you felt the Holy Spirit, even with all the "distractions!"