Mystery Worshipper: Erma Hamre
Church: San Esteban
Location: Bera de Bidasoa, Navarra, Spain
Date of visit: Sunday, 21 May 2006, 12:00am
A plain stone church with bell tower, high on a hill, approached by many steps. The church dates back to the 1600s or perhaps earlier. The tower has a rather notorious past – it was a favorite place from which to shoot at Carlistas during the Carlista Wars of the 19th century as well as a place to hold prisoners, some of whom would throw themselves from the tower to commit suicide.
San Esteban ministers to both a Spanish-speaking and Basque-speaking congregation. The service we attended was bilingual.
Located in the north of Spain, the city numbers about 3000 residents and is a popular tourist spot for hikers and bicyclers.
The pastor was the celebrant, but as there were no bulletins or handouts I did not get his name.
What was the name of the service?Sunday Mass with first holy communion for six children
How full was the building?
Mostly full – about 200.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. We had met a young man named Anduoni ("Call me Tony") the previous day, who had taken us on a tour of the bell tower and had explained the workings of both the bells and the clock. He had also informed us when masses would be, and we chose Sunday noon to hear the organ and see the six children take first communion in their fine white clothing. Tony met us at the church again on Sunday and showed us the organ, said to be the second best of its kind in Europe, and told us a story about an Englishwoman whose fondest dream was to play the organ on her birthday – and so she did! Tony then left us to take his place on the altar as one of the servers.
Was your pew comfortable?
Pews were wooden bench style, authentic for the age of the church.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There was a balance between reverence and normal settling-in noises of children.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" said first in Basque and then in Spanish.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Big professionally done overhead projector for words to hymns. Again bilingual.
What musical instruments were played?
The renowned organ.
Did anything distract you?
There were many old statues and paintings of Our Lady, St Stephen, the Holy Family, etc. And, strange as it may sound, I was distracted by the fact that not one single cell phone rang!
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
There was a respectable amount of participation among the congregants. Everyone sang with gusto. The peace ceremony seemed genuine, with everyone making eye contact.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – I don't know either language well enough to be able to judge, but I base my score on the fact that I saw many eyes glaze over.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The celebrant connected the Gospel reading for the day, John 15:19-21, with first holy communion. What the world did to Christ, it will also do to his followers. For the children receiving communion today, this is the most important day of their lives, for they now get to participate fully in what Christ has given us. It is the happiest day of their lives.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The high level of participation, the hearty singing in Basque, the genuineness of the peace ceremony.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
My, but the church was dusty! Dust was clearly visible in the air within the dome.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
More visiting with Tony, who gave us a bilingual prayer book.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There were no refreshments. The families of the first communicants fussed over the children and assembled them under the shade of trees for photos.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – The artwork, and the faith of the artisans who created it, would draw me back.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. It is the universal Christian church, same intentions in prayer, same God, equality in pews, whether or not there is equality on the street outside.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Tony's hospitality, the tours he conducted for us, and the stories he told.