An Easter Mass
A Presbyterian attends Easter Mass in Brussels and finds himself at home amidst an unexpected congregation.
Near the Parc Cinquentenaire in Brussels, directly opposite the bottle bank in the Avenue de la Renaissance, stands a Dominican Church of the late 19th century. Just before 10 am on Easter Sunday I joined the throng of people who were going inside.
As a Presbyterian, the last Easter Mass I had attended was in Paris some fifty years ago. That was a Russian Orthodox rite. Then the church was filled with priests, song, sound, light, sartorial colour and incense.
The only thing that that service had in common with this year’s Mass was that on both occasions the churches were packed with people.
This time, there were no bells and no smells, no music and only one priest quite modestly dressed. Given the location of the church in a posh residential district, I had expected a congregation of well-dressed, well-fed, middle-aged, middle class Belgians, (and people don’t come better fed than the Belgian middle classes). As it happened, those people did indeed come, but later for a service at 11.30. The present crowd were working class, with not a grey hair in sight. There were a few single people, but they were mostly families with teenage or younger children. They filled all the pews, and overflowed into the aisles and the back of the church.
Another surprising thing: there were no hymn books or prayer books or even bibles, so far as I could see. If there was an organ, it did not play. Instead, shortly after the priest had entered and offered a brief prayer, he began to sing unaccompanied but quite softly. The congregation picked up the hymn, not chanting like the Orthodox nor muttering like Episcopalians nor bellowing like Presbyterians, but with the effortless spontaneity of people joining in a familiar refrain.
A few more such hymns followed, interspersed with prayers. Were it not for the periodic “Allelujah”s, they could have been mistaken for folksongs. It took me a while to work out the language. It did not sound like Latin or French or any Romance language. I had been warned beforehand that the service might be in Dutch, and indeed the men had the hard faces and round heads of Northern Europeans, but their faces looked different from the Flemings I had encountered in the streets of Brussels and in the paintings in the city’s museums. They were more rugged and their hair was more closely cropped. Eventually I realised that the language being used was Polish. The Poles must have come from all over the city to that church to celebrate Easter.
Following a sermon whose words were incomprehensible to me but whose tone said ‘DInnae’, thus making me feel at home, the time came for Mass. After the priest had celebrated the sacrament himself, I wondered how he could possibly serve the entire congregation who were already lining up in the aisles. I had forgotten that in the Catholic Church sometimes it is only the priest who receives the wine. From where I was standing at the very back, the communicants seemed to pause only briefly at the altar to take the host. No-one knelt.
But shortly afterwards the congregation did fall to its knees twice, quite abruptly, catching me by surprise. Each time I struggled to get to my feet. Where I was standing there were no pews to hold on to. During one of the ensuing hymns, a man in ordinary clothes passed through the crowd with a collection plate, but he was gone before I could reach my euros. Even more swift and perfunctory was the exchange of ‘pax vobiscum’, which appeared to take place within rather than between families. Then everyone dispersed into the sunshine, many still singing the closing hymn as they went. The service had lasted one hour.
The overall effect on me was not exhilarating like that Orthodox Mass so long ago, but strangely comforting, even although I had not understood a word that had been said or sung. The members of the congregation of which I had temporarily felt a part were not demonstrative nor bombastic nor triumphalist, but rather modest and tranquil in their demeanour. Quite a rare thing nowadays, I thought, as I walked home.
David Simpson is a former Professor of Economics at the University of Strathclyde from 1975. Now retired, he continues to write on politics and economics.