Feeling at home at Mass

“If you ever have any problems on the road, remember, you can always go to a church.” That advice was given to us by someone we met in Christchurch and it got me to thinking, no matter where we’ve gone in the world, regardless of the language of the local people, we always felt “connected.”

This trip was no different. We saw many beautiful churches, synagogues and mosques but going to Mass was special. That hour each week connected us to the locals, our fellow travelers and the world at large.

For the most part, the prayer responses were always up on a screen, making it easy to follow along. (We’ve seen that occasionally at home and it makes so much sense. Why waste paper printing it out each week?) Participation and size of the crowd varied. Some sermons were better than others.

In Australia, our usual parish was Sacred Heart Mission, just down the street. It was an older church and had a small congregation — everyone seemed to know everyone. Although we were the ‘strangers,’ no one asked us who we were or where we came from but that was OK. We were happy to anonymously watch the middle-aged lady run the liturgy like a general, positioning the small choir, complaining when the pianist arrived late and correcting the older priest if he missed something. There was a young blind woman, whom they all seemed very protective of, who read the readings by braille. The hymns were older and traditional.

We also attended large cathedrals in Melbourne and Adelaide. Again there were fewer people and voices echoed in the cavernous spaces. A suburban church in Melbourne had more kids but, overall, we didn’t find that the Australian parishioners or their pastors were overly enthusiastic.

New Zealand was better. There were many more people at masses – the typical older people with a lot of young families – and the participation was livelier. Although the Mass was in English, on the North Island, we were delighted to hear many hymns sung in the Maori language by whites and Maoris together. The schools teach both languages to help preserve the Maori culture. We went to many different churches on the South Island and will never forget the eeriness of experiencing an earthquake at Christmas Eve Mass. Again the music was more traditional and the Christmas hymns the same. New Zealanders were much more curious about the “new people” in church, often asking us for our story.

But South Africa? That’s where we found the most spiritual enthusiasm. We attended a couple different churches, with two being especially memorable. St. Patrick’s in Port Elizabeth was in an upscale, beachside suburb. When we arrived, many people surrounded us but the small church was dark. The “load shedding,” however, did not dampen the spirit of the congregation. Although the organ was silenced and the priest had to shout (in broken English) without a microphone, the congregation was one of the most engaged of any we had encountered. In Johannesburg, at Our Lady of the Wayside Maryvale, we were treated to the choir of “church ladies” who sang like angels! That and seeing the women and children dressed in their Sunday finest really made Sunday mass feel like a special occasion, which it was for us as it was the last of our adventure and a truly beautiful “send-off!”

Christmas in Christchurch

As the faithful approached the altar for Christmas Eve communion, the floors vibrated and the chandeliers swayed. The crowd began singing Silent Night when the lady next to Nick showed him her Ipad screen – a 4.0 earthquake! The verse, “Angels quake at the sight,” will now represent something very different to me! No one else seemed particularly concerned, just another tremor in Christchurch.

Christchurch has recently experienced two major earthquakes – one in September 2010 and another in February of 2011. Both caused major damage but, though less in magnitude, the 2011 earthquake resulted in much more destruction and 185 deaths. Driving around, you see crumbled buildings everywhere. The whole city seems to be one big construction site. That said, there is much beauty to be found among the devastation — pop-up parklets, murals, touching memorials, even the colorful shipping containers that shore up walls or are stacked to create a shopping mall! You find yourself in awe of the people that live in Christchurch and their tenacity to rebuild and move on. It was a very special place to spend Christmas and to count one’s blessings.

Frank and I arrived in Christchurch, our first city on New Zealand’s South Island, on Christmas Eve eve. Nick and Maddie were to fly in the next day from LA. Trying to preserve some semblance of holiday normalcy, our plans were to cook a couple nice meals at “home.” After dropping our bags, we made our way to the grocery store. It was pretty much what you’d expect on the day before a holiday — countless shoppers, picked over stock – What? No cloves?! Cornstarch is corn flour?! You end up making due and it all works out fine.

On Christmas Eve morning, we picked up our order from the local butcher. The place we rented had no decorations so Frank and I stopped at a dollar store for some holiday cheer — garland, ornaments, poppers. I whipped up a batch of Christmas cookies. NOW we were ready for visitors! We were so happy Nick and Maddie could come spend the holidays with us. It’s sad Andy couldn’t get away but he had fun visiting Jenny in Montana. It was a very different Christmas for all of us. After an early dinner and the very eventful Christmas Eve mass, the four of us went to Latimer Square for Caroling in the Park. Although it was (relatively) cool, the park radiated with holiday warmth–families gathered on picnic blankets, kids running around, hand-held candles and, of course, a band with singers — young and old.

Christmas morning the four of us rose early to help set up a luncheon at the Christchurch Mission. The large crew of friendly and happy volunteers quickly transformed an empty tent into a festive venue for over 600 guests! Feeling so fortunate to be here in New Zealand, it was nice to play a small part in helping to make someone else’s holiday a little happier. And being the holiday, we had the city streets to ourselves for exploring. Nick and Maddie took several long runs, getting acclimated to looking right versus left for oncoming traffBoxing Day, the day after Christmas, is also a major holiday in New Zealand. In addition to being a big shopping day, Christchurch was hosting a large cricket tournament. We decided to get out of town, heading to the scenic Banks Peninsula and the charming French town of Akaroa (pics below.) The next day, we explored Christchurch. Mike and Marianne Daley (friends of a friend of ours from back home) had us all over for morning tea at their lovely home in the hills of Christchurch. Marianne was originally from the States and had worked at Gesu (our church in Milwaukee). It was fun hearing about her life as a Kiwi and her experiences during the earthquakes. Mike, a native, gave us great tips for our journey around the South Island. He also gave us a suggestion for a nice restaurant in the Botanical Gardens, the final stop on the day’s tour and on our fascinating stay in Christchurch.