Mystery Worshipper: Tartuffe
Church: Panny Marie Vítíězné
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Date of visit: Sunday, 3 June 2007, 12:00pm
The building dates from 1611, the first Baroque structure to be built in Prague, and was originally a Lutheran church. After the battle of the White Mountain (1620), in which Catholic forces under Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II routed the Protestant Bohemians, the church was given to the Carmelite order as a sign of gratitude. From the outside it is a simple yet elegant structure resembling any standard small church on any of Prague's back streets. But inside the reality becomes clearer. Gold and marble are everywhere, making the interior very shiny as only the Baroque can be, if a little tacky!
Panny Marie Vítíězné (Our Lady Victorious) is home to one of the most famous Catholic images of all time, the Bambino de Praga, the Infant Jesus of Prague, a little wax effigy presented to the Carmelites by the Habsburg patron Polyxena of Lobkowicz in 1628. Devotion inspired by the statue is said to have resulted in many miracles, including saving Prague from the bubonic plague. Housed in a glass case on an exquisite Baroque altar, the infant has attracted many pilgrims over the years, some leaving behind gifts which are on display. The statue has 380 different outfits, including one embroidered by Queen Maria Theresa herself, and its clothes are changed daily by the local Carmelite nuns. Tacky copies of the Infant of Prague can be bought from any number of neighbouring shops, and reproductions can be found in countless Catholic churches and homes throughout the world.
The church is in Malá Strana, at the foot of Prague Castle at the centre of the old city. This is the tourist-filled, charming and picturesque heart of the capital of the Czech Republic.
A priest and two laymen, none of whom was named.
What was the name of the service?Mass in English
How full was the building?
Nearly completely full with worshippers (about 200) and a constantly changing group of tourists who wandered about during the service.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No one welcomed me and, indeed, had there not been a group of people sitting in pews waiting, I would never have known a service was about to start.
Was your pew comfortable?
Narrow, low-backed seating that could not have been made comfortable by any trick or stratagem. The wooden kneeler left very little room to stand. I was most comfortable when I was on my knees.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Confused, nervous and lost, as people had no idea what was about to happen.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
We sang "Morning has Broken," after which the priest recited the words: "In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen. Welcome to this mass."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
There were no books, no order of service and no Bibles. This meant that you had no idea what was coming up, what was happening, or (if you did not know the hymns by heart) what was being sung.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ and a painful (though keen) choir of some five people.
Did anything distract you?
Throughout the service I was struck by a sense of loss. I had no idea what was going on and the congregation had no idea when to stand or sit, how to move about, or what should be said. All these concerns distracted from the act of worship. Tourists wandered around and chatted throughout with no attempt to stop them – I could barely hear the sermon. The singing was poor throughout and, during the sanctus, I ceased being able to work out the tune, let alone praise God. Renovations were underway and the scaffolding behind the altar looked dangerous; I was fearful for the priest's safety.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
This was a traditional, conservative novus ordo Catholic mass.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
4 – The priest, though clearly fluent in English, spoke with such passion that his sermon became almost unintelligible.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The mystery of the trinity is beyond our understanding. The trinity is mentioned throughout the Bible but is not simply God in three forms – it is something more complex (though we were never told quite what). In the end, the close relationship within the trinity is the close relationship we should strive for between ourselves and God.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Singing "Lord I lift your name on high" at the end of the service. I felt I was the only one singing, but the majesty of the organ and the opportunity to sing out loud was brilliant.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The sense of loss and bewilderment due to the lack of order of service was awful... as was much of the music. Also, no one directed the procession of faithful to receive communion, resulting in pushing and shoving akin to a rugby scrum.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
A girl sitting two rows ahead of me smiled, but that was as close as it came to any human contact. I was just another lost tourist.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee? 'Fraid not. I was offered a cheap replica of the Infant of Prague, though.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
2 – This service would do if you had to go to church, but I found no spiritual support and no real opportunity to worship God.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Not really – this was Christianity out of a necessity to attend church, not out of a desire to worship God. No effort was made to let anyone know what was going on, and apparently no one cared.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The sense of loneliness and bewilderment as I had no idea what was going on.