Strangers in a strange Church

Last Sunday my fiancée and I were away from home – at least five dioceses* (or three countries) to be exact – so Mass was to be attended at an unfamiliar church in an unfamiliar language (well, at least partly). We opted for the Cathedral of St. Erik in Stockholm.

The cathedral is the mother church of the Diocese of Stockholm, which covers all of Sweden, and the seat of Bishop Anders Arborelius (who himself was in Rio when we visited his cathedral). It has been the cathedral since 1953, when Stockholm was established as a diocese, although it wasn’t consecrated until 1983.

As visits to other churches than my own, both in the Netherlands and in Germany, have made me a bit concerned about how the liturgy would be celebrated, I entered St. Erik’s with similar feelings. But, as it turned out, there was no need. The cathedral community and her priests understand liturgy and celebrate Mass as the Church requires. What they don’t do well, however, is architecture.

 St. Erik’s is divided in two parts. There is the original church, which is a perfectly fine 19th century building, with lots of woodwork, paintings, stained glass, statues and two altars. Much is made of the 1989 visit of Blessed John Paul II, and the cathedral is the proud owner of a relic of the soon-to-be saint. The patron, Saint Erik himself, is also in evidence, as is St. Bridget, patron of Sweden. No complaints with this part of the building, except that it contains a gaping hole.

There is no main sanctuary.

Instead, where the sanctuary once upon a time was, there is now a nicely arched entry into the second haf of the building: a standard hall-like structure of the style which suffices for a meeting hall, multifunctional school room or other spacious area where a large number of people can meet. But a space where the sacrifice of our Lord can become present? Not so much. The contrast between the two parts of the church is quite jarring. It is a sign of the power of good liturgy that it is able to transcend this contrast, but why someone once elected to remove a perfectly good sanctuary, designed to elevate the soul and make the sacrifice of the Mass visible to its deepest level, and replace it with a  brick room is anyone’s guess.

But not wanting to be a sour-puss, I’ll share some photos I took at the cathedral:

saint erik's cathedral

^The coat of arms of Pope Francis graces the front of the cathedral.

saint erik's cathedral

^The modern section of the cathedral, which does contain some positive elements: the tabernacle is impossible to miss, the altar has a Benedictine arrangement, and priests, deacons, acolytes and servers sit facing the tabernacle when not at altar or lectern.

st. eriks  cathedral, john paul ii

^A relic of Blessed John Paul II’s blood, in a chapel in the archway leading from the original church to the newer section.

st. eric's cathedral

^ From the old to the new: both parts of the church seen together.

Lastly, a church is also made up out of people. One of these was Blessed John Paul II. Another is the unknown lady who approached us and told us her story in Swedish (we were not able to follow it all). Her tears touched us, as did  her desire and hope for our future happiness. She gave us a tiny relic of the blessed Pope, a piece of fabric with his blood on it… **

*Seen from my home diocese of Groningen-Leeuwarden, these would be the Dioceses of Osnabrück and Münster, the Archdiocese of Hamburg, and the Dioceses of Copenhagen and Stockholm.

** And yes, it is official, containing an affidavit with Cardinal Vallini’s name and signature.

Ash Wednesday

The sanctuary at the cathedral. The retable doors are closed to indicate that Lent has begun

My forehead now featuring a blackish smudge, I can say that Lent has truly begun. It feels as if Christmas was just a few weeks ago, but Lent actually isn’t particularly early this year. From now until Easter, the liturgy of the Mass will be sober. There won’t be any ‘alleluiah’ or Gloria, for example, and decorative elements are removed from the sanctuary as far as possible. All this to make the period of fasting and abstinence visible as something performed by the entire Church.

In the past, Lent used to be stricter than it is now. Now only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (like every Friday) are days of fasting. The rest of Lent holds no obligation to fast. Personally, I believe this has contributed to a diminished awareness of what Lent (and consequently Easter) is, so I’ll have none of it. Lent is a 40-day period of fasting and abstinence, with only the Sundays as breaks (the Sunday is by definition a feast day).

Easter is the high point of the liturgical year and a period of preparation, by consciously given things up and realigning oneself to God, seems far from unreasonable. Because Easter, the salvation by Christ, is quite something. It is all that Christianity is about. We can simply not afford to let it pass virtually unnoticed.

So my forehead smudge of ashes indicates my willingness to prepare myself, to give up some creature comforts and refocus myself on God. And I’ll do my very best to live up to that.