Mystery Worshipper: Aisla Sloper (accompanied by Mr Sloper)
Church: Tarragona Cathedral
Location: Tarragona, Cataluña, Spain
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 September 2017, 11:00am
This is a huge and complicated Romanesque-to-Gothic church on a small hill in the oldest part of Tarragona. Construction began in the 12th century and it was consecrated in 1331. Magnificent rose window over the west door. The interior features 19 count 'em, 19 chapels, including one to St Thecla, patroness of Tarragona, built in 1777 in late Baroque style over what was once the baptistery. The high altar is also decorated with scenes from the life of St Thecla. The cloisters have five little lily and goldfish ponds one has small turtles (maybe terrapins?) that stick their heads out of the water and beg for bits of biscuit. Beware they can nip!
Difficult to tell. People seemed to be dropping in to mass, often with small children in tow, or on their shoulders, throughout the earlier part of the service. It all seemed very cheerful and relaxed.
Tarragona is a port city located in northeast Spain. It is the capital of the Province of Tarragona in the autonomous region of Cataluña. The Santa Tecla Festival is held in late September of each year. The festival is said to be a massive affair the owner of our favourite tapas bar said it was the busiest time of the year for him and beat any part of the tourist season. The life of St Thecla is documented in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. She is sometimes called the patron saint of computers and the Internet, as the Spanish word for key (of a computer keyboard) is tecla. The cathedral is built on the remains of a Roman imperial temple that is being excavated. On Sunday mornings there are lots of second-hand book and flea-market stalls in the square and surrounding streets.
Don't know the name of the priest in charge. He was a bearded, youngish middle-aged man with a very good voice who seemed to have a kindly nature and a sense of humour. He tried to coach everyone to sing the Sanctus in Catalan but we were all so shy it was an uphill struggle. He made jokes about it, which set the ladies in front of us laughing. We more or less got there in the end.
What was the name of the service?Conventual Mass at the High Altar
How full was the building?
About 15 people were in when we arrived (apart from the choir and other priests and servers), but many more must have arrived later as there was a line of about 40 (plus small children) to take communion and not all of us took communion.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
The door was guarded by a rather tough-looking man who seemed to be there to deter tourists for the duration of the service. Our tentative "Misa ¿altar mayor?" was met with a lovely smile and he silently welcomed us in and pointed us the right direction.
Was your pew comfortable?
Plain basic unenclosed wooden pew. Nothing wrong with it.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Peaceful and at-ease.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
I think it was "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" in Latin, but it could have been Catalan. (Catalan sounds much closer to Latin than Spanish does.)
What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books. We picked up a couple of song sheets on the way in. One had the Kyrie, along with the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus and Agnus Dei in Latin, with the music. The other had the same chants in Catalan. The Creed, Gloria and Agnus Dei were sung in Latin. Enough of my school Latin and Mr Sloper's Catholic boyhood came back for us to be able to join in properly with these. The Sanctus was sung in Catalan. We did our best with it.
What musical instruments were played?
Did anything distract you?
Marvellous medieval carvings on the choir stalls and organ case right next to us. I kept trying to sneak a look, then being drawn back to "eyes- front" by the two massive angels on top of the altarpiece.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A traditional Catholic service as far as Mr Sloper could tell, but without hymns. The singing of the Gloria, etc. was beautiful. The general pattern seemed very similar to Sunday morning holy communion in my own C of E parish church. There was just one reading from St Luke, I think but I don't speak Catalan, so am guessing.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
? – I'm afraid I don't know. The congregation were quiet, still and attentive so he was probably good.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Sorry, I have no idea.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The peace strangely because I usually dread it a bit. People were smiling and saying "Peace be with you" in three or four different languages to anyone who happened to look their way. We shook hands with the two or three people nearest to us. Nobody seemed expected to do the rounds of the whole church.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Trying to cope with a crash course in Gregorian chant (if that's what it was) and Catalan at the same time. But I wouldn't have missed it for worlds.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
There was no opportunity to hang around. The tourists (lots of them) were allowed in again and everyone got on with the business of the day. We went for lunch and came back on our tourist tickets for a good look round in the afternoon.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
No after-service refreshments. It's not that sort of place.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – If I were a Catholic and lived in Tarragona I would be there. Although not a Catholic, I hope to go back some day, but will make an effort to learn some Catalan first.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so. So did the cathedral itself. I've never before seen so many smiling images in a church. The Archangel Michael has a big grin on his face as he hurls Satan down; several Virgin Marys look distinctly smug and an Infant Jesus has a twinkly smile. The whole place feels cheerful and confident in spite of some representations of gruesome martyrdoms.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I came out with tears in my eyes. Ten days later I'm still trying to work out why, as I could only follow bits of the service.