BY CARMEL PILCHER
Sister Carmel Pilcher is pictured at right at the Prayers of the Faithful during the Mass of Thanksgiving (a Beth Doherty image from the CathNews Gallery).
Now that the dust has settled and many of us who made the long pilgrimage to Rome have returned home, rich stories continue to be told. One favourite of mine occurred during the Mass of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s Basilica on the day after the canonisation.
As a member of the liturgy committee I had a key role in preparing the Mass. At one point during the celebration a number of Josephites came forward to serve as ushers to guide the bishops to communion stations. As the Sisters approached the sanctuary a man became confused and followed the Sisters.
The political delegation was seated nearby. One politician simply moved quietly up to the man, shook his hand and then gently guided him away to the side of the Basilica.
I was struck by such a polite, sensitive and respectful gesture from one that from his public persona would not ever be described in such a way!
I have heard many make the comment that the Mass of Thanksgiving was a particular highlight for them because it was the one ‘truly Aussie’ celebration. This question has puzzled me and I found myself asking: what seemed to make a Mass celebrated in the heart of Rome so distinctively and identifiably Australian?
The Mass of Thanksgiving strictly followed the texts and structures of the Roman Rite, with no additions or exclusions, and in that regard was no different from the canonisation Mass the day before in St Peter’s Square.
While we were commemorating an Australian saint we celebrated at the tomb of St Paul in the environs of a huge and truly magnificent Roman basilica. Australia cannot boast of such a lavishly decorated building, so there was nothing there to remind us of home. So what made the Mass seem so ‘Aussie’ and familiar? Probably a combination of things!
First of all most of the 4000 participants were Australian. And unlike the day before in St Peter’s Square, we mostly prayed in English. We did include other languages in our intercessions – Tetun and Maori of our neighbours: East Timor and New Zealand, and Spanish to honour Mary MacKillop’s Peruvian connection.
We chose service music and hymns that were familiar to us all, and were so ably led by the ACU choir that yes, we did all sing. Cardinal Pell’s homily was both inspirational and extremely relevant and touched us all powerfully. And perhaps a highlight for many and a favourite of the media were the processions.
The entrance procession set the tone of the celebration. It was heralded by banners depicting the colours of our country. Aboriginal elders led the more than one hundred Josephites who had travelled to Rome for the occasion. The teal blue scarves contrasted with the white of the many bishops who represented dioceses from Australia, New Zealand and beyond.
The second procession of gifts was equally festive and more solemn. The unmistakable sound of the didgeridoo heralded the procession of first peoples. These were led by a group of Australian aboriginal people who danced proudly and reverently around the cross that had been especially made and decorated for the occasion.
They were followed by native peoples of New Zealand, East Timor and Peru who processed with great dignity in colourful costumes – with each person bearing gifts. Finally two Josephite leaders brought forward the gifts of bread and wine. The third procession to communion was not as orderly but no less significant as thousands moved to the many bishops to be fed from the one body in Christ.
So what ultimately gave this Mass an ‘Aussie’ flavour? Why was it such a powerful celebration that was relevant and life changing for the participants? I suspect it was all of the above as well as the palpably deep ‘Aussie faith’ of the 4,000 or so who participated with all their hearts and minds, singing, praying and exercising the fullness of their baptismal calling. It was this tangible faith that I believe made pilgrims feel so ‘at home’ when in fact they were so very far from the land of their birth.
We often lament that our Sunday liturgical celebrations are ‘dull and boring’ and fail to connect with people’s life experience. It could be argued that we gathered at St Paul’s for a particular purpose and this provided a significant sense of occasion, to honour the first of our nation to be recognised as saint by the universal church.
But then each Sunday we gather for an even greater reason – to celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ. So why did the liturgy speak and connect with people? I think the answer lies in the fact that we took care to prepare this liturgy with the particular assembly in mind.
We carefully chose music that all could sing; we honoured the occasion by our processions that were relevant to the occasion; and we ensured that enough ministers were available to serve such a large assembly so that all could participate fully. This I believe is the challenge for those of us who prepare the special liturgy that is celebrated each and every Sunday - not on Mary MacKillop’s but on the Lord’s Day.
The liturgical booklet produced for the Mass of Thanksgiving is available for download here on the CathNew website.
Carmel Pilcher is a Sister of St Joseph based in Sydney who works as a liturgical consultant.
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