Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California, USA

Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, Los Angeles, California, USA


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Mystery Worshipper:
Church: Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Location: Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of visit: Sunday, 22 November 2009, 10:00am

The building

The old St Vibiana's Cathedral in downtown Los Angeles, inadequate almost from the day it opened in 1876, was long scheduled for replacement, but the need became acute in 1994 when an earthquake rendered the building structurally unsound. Construction on Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral began in 1998 and the cathedral was consecrated in 2002. It is a huge post-modern building, the design of the Spanish architect José Rafael Moneo Vallés - one of his few churches, his other works in Spain and the United States being primarily museums, town halls and academic buildings. Donations for the new cathedral were plentiful, and no expense was spared to make it a grand monument to art as well as religion. The exterior is at first glance cold and harsh, as abstract modern structures can be. But as one grows accustomed to it, one can feel the warmth and serenity lent by various artworks to the otherwise bare courtyards and walkways. The interior features a mix of vast open spaces and intimate nooks and crannies, again filled with art. In lieu of stained glass, panels of translucent alabaster bathe the nave in soft cream-colored light.

The church

The cathedral sees itself as a champion of the arts, and schedules regular exhibits, lectures and musical presentations. It also wishes to serve (quoting from its website) "as a model church for all parish churches in the style and content of its liturgical celebrations." The cathedral sponsors several outreach ministries to the community; among these is the Adopt-a-Family program, which seeks to provide assistance to needy families who find themselves outside the help of government and other charitable programs.

The neighborhood

The cathedral sits just north of Bunker Hill in downtown Los Angeles. Once the bastion of the very wealthy in their elaborate Victorian homes, Bunker Hill is today the site of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Museum of Contemporary Art, modern office towers and apartment buildings. The Los Angeles County Courthouse is just across the street.

The cast

His Eminence Roger Cardinal Mahoney, Archbishop of Los Angeles, was the celebrant. A priest whose name was not given concelebrated mass with His Eminence. Two deacons assisted; their names likewise were not given. There were also about a half dozen unnamed acolytes. Frank Brownstead directed the choir and Samuel Salvador Soria presided at the organ. Miss Amanda was accompanied by Shipmate Lyda*Rose.

What was the name of the service?

Sunday Mass.

How full was the building?

Completely full.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

No. There were uniformed ushers present, but they seemed primarily interested in visiting among themselves.

Was your pew comfortable?


How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?

People entered quietly but the ushers were creating quite a din with their personal visiting. The choir rehearsed a bit, and when they were done the organist began a prelude. Acolytes in white hooded robes removed the altar candles for use in the entrance procession.

What were the exact opening words of the service?

"Good morning. Welcome to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels."

What books did the congregation use during the service?

The hardbound Ritual Song hymnal and service book. The Spanish hymnal Flor y Canto was also in the pews but was not used. There was no bulletin or service leaflet.

What musical instruments were played?

Organ and (during the psalm) flute. The cathedral's pipe organ is an opus of the Dobson Pipe Organ Company of Lake City, Iowa, and incorporates some pipework from the St. Vibiana instrument. A choir of about 40 singers, in burgundy robes, provided the vocal music.

Did anything distract you?

Yes, but in a good way. There were several student groups present. A large group of well-behaved teenagers of Asian ethnicity (we couldnt figure out if they were Korean or Polynesian) sat immediately in front of us. Many of their number appeared to be non-Catholic; they sat during the eucharistic prayer and went forward at communion with arms folded to receive a blessing.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?

A very dignified novus ordo low mass. The cardinal presided from his throne and was attended by the deacons and master of ceremonies with grace and aplomb. After one of the deacons read the gospel, the cardinal kissed the gospel book and then blessed us with it. The cardinal swung one of the largest thuribles I've ever seen - the size of a rain bucket! And he swung it with gusto - none of this timid little lifting up and down that you see so often in Catholic churches nowadays. But, strangely, the elements were not censed at the moment of consecration. We sang real music - "Lift High the Cross" for the processional, "To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King" for the recessional - spoiled only by a singing nun-style Gloria and Sanctus. The choir sang anthems at the offertory and at communion, and also a polyphonic Agnus Dei in Latin. The student group in front of us all shook our hands at the exchange of peace, although a lady to my right remained bolt rigid, looking to neither side and shaking hands with no one. We received communion under both species.

Exactly how long was the sermon?

12 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?

9 – Cardinal Mahoney walked about in front of the altar as he spoke, looking in all directions so as to include everyone. He made good eye contact and good use of his hands. He did not speak from notes but nevertheless delivered a well constructed homily.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?

Today we think of kings as mere figureheads. Christ's kingship is different from that of worldly kings - it is one of service, intended to bring us to God. Christ was king to the outcast, the downtrodden, tax collectors, prostitutes - the very people who need to be touched by God. We become members of Christ's kingdom through baptism and enter into the fullness of it at death. When we perform charitable works, we imitate Christ's selfless service to others. That is the highest form of participation in Christ's kingdom. The feast we celebrate today is a call to loving, humble service, a time to renew our devotion to Jesus, to make him king of our lives.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?

The Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels has been called by some cold and lifeless. Critics have scornfully dubbed it the Taj Mahoney, a derisive reference to the Cardinal Archbishop, who actively oversaw the construction of the cathedral and the selection of its appointments. But we felt that today's mass belied that view. The building works! And to see Cardinal Mahoney "at home" in his cathedral was heavenly. All too many bishops, not only Catholic but also in the Anglican communion, are rare visitors to their own cathedrals. I was reminded of Thornton Wilder's description of the Archbishop of Lima in his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey: "He loved his cathedral; he loved his duties."

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?

Despite the smoothness with which the action at the altar progressed, there were several awkward moments down in the nave. The ushers, for example, seemed unsure of when to take up the collection. Perhaps they were still heady from the afterglow of their private conversations before mass. Finally, after several moments of deadness, Cardinal Mahoney had to say, "The ushers are now invited to pass the offering baskets." Also, as good as the choir was, the director had the habit of slowing the tempo down to a crawl at the end of every number. I've heard of rallentando, but this was rallentando taken to excess. Finally, it would have been good if we had been given a program. I had no idea of whose setting it was of "Let All the World in Every Corner Sing" that the choir sang at the offertory, or of what the communion anthem was, or of what the organist played for his prelude or recessional.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?

True to form, everyone beat a hasty exit as we were singing the concluding hymn - except for Lyda*Rose and myself, who sang for as long as the organ played. "You can tell who the Episcopalians are," I remarked to her. We had spotted Cardinal Mahoney out in the courtyard earlier, schmoozing with the faithful as they emerged from the earlier mass, and we were hoping that we would see him there again so that we could have our picture taken. But alas, he didn't emerge.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?

There was none. We retired to that venerable Los Angeles institution, the Pantry Cafe, for a delicious brunch.

How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?

8 – Lyda*Rose and I both agreed that based on this mass, the cathedral lives up to its claim to be a model church for all parish churches – except for the behavior of the ushers. If I lived in Los Angeles and there were no Episcopal churches in town, I would seriously consider making the cathedral my regular church.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?


What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?

The Cardinal Archbishop "at home" in his cathedral.

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