Mystery Worshipper: Don Bosco
Church: Sacred Heart
Location: Ilkley, West Yorkshire, England
Date of visit: Sunday, 25 December 2011, 8:30am
A blend of traditional and modern architecture. The large entrance porch, narthex, and apse are in Victorian Gothic. North and south nave extensions obviously date from the 1970s. There are saw-tooth walls, apparently inspired by Coventry Cathedral. The typical reordering as a result of the second Vatican Council has occurred, with a new concrete altar at the edge of the sanctuary, whitewashed walls, and loss of altar rails. The tabernacle remains in the middle of the small sanctuary, and the church retains an intimate and reverent atmosphere.
The parish is affiliated with a primary school of the same name. A member of Churches Together in Ilkley, Sacred Heart works with the other Christian denominations in the town using a common credal basis to bring the faith to the people of Ilkley. No specific outreaches or classes were mentioned in the pew leaflets. I approve of this absence from the literature, working by the maxim of St Philip Neri to "desire to remain unknown."
The spa town of Ilkley is surrounded by countryside. The southern slopes of the valley form Ilkley Moor, immortalised in Yorkshire's anthem. Prehistoric man lived on the moors and left behind stone circles and hundreds of rock carvings, including the famous so-called Swastika Stone. The equally famous cow and calf rock formation, so called because many think the outcropping resembles said animals, can be seen on the moors above the town. In the 20th century Ilkley has become a relatively wealthy dormitory town for the nearby cities of Leeds and Bradford, with a mix of young families and older couples throughout the town.
The celebrant was a visiting priest identified only as Father Simon. The Revd Msgr Kieran Heskin, parish priest, concelebrated, proclaimed the gospel, and preached.
What was the name of the service?Mass of the Shepherds (Dawn Mass).
How full was the building?
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Yes. After I struggled to open the door, the lady handing out the books for mass gave me a warm smile and wished me a very genuine happy Christmas. Once in church, I was left to my prayers, which is how I like it before mass.
Was your pew comfortable?
A standard 1970s pew. Comfortable but with knee-cap removing kneelers.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Reverent until ten minutes before mass began, when the church began to sound like a coffee shop.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Parish Mass Book, Celebration Hymnal for Everyone.
What musical instruments were played?
A small but real pipe organ, played with varying degrees of musical sensitivity. The lusty singing of well known carols covered some harmonic indiscretions.
Did anything distract you?
Versus populum celebration always distracts me, and the visiting celebrant introduced several liturgical oddities.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
"Do the red, say the black." A simple said mass with hymns, no bells or smells. Appropriately formal and by the book. The mass was entirely Christ-oriented, yet celebrated facing the people. The congregation were reverent and quiet throughout.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
I forgot to time it, but it was just long enough to hold absolute attention, despite being intense. I'd estimate about 10 to 15 minutes.
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Msgr Heskin preached from a script, but this wasn't noticeable. Anything above primary school level catechesis wasn't mentioned – a shame, because the monsignor seemed to have the congregation listening intently.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The true Christmas gift is manifest in that stable in Bethlehem. Christmas is not just for people who can celebrate with gluttony and secular joy. We should put our selfishness and vanity aside and give ourselves wholly to all men, as Christ does, especially those who grieve or suffer – for whom he has the greatest compassion. After all, our Saviour and his Blessed Mother experienced the trials of the human condition even at the time of Christ's birth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
When I first walked into the body of the church, a "wow" escaped my lips – low lighting, candles, and a well placed nativity scene set a wonderful atmosphere.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Ninety-five per cent of the congregation failed to use the new translation of the mass, compulsory since Advent Sunday. The competition was palpable by the creed, and I cringed every time the congregants bellowed "and also with you" instead of "and with your spirit". I hope these obstinate passive-aggressive protests will be stopped.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. The rite of the dash to the car began half way through the recessional hymn.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – It would be unfair to evaluate the parish based on a Christmas mass where visitors predominate, and the priest is rushed off his feet. But if the parish priest celebrates mass as reverently as he preaches, I would be a regular attendee at the said masses if I lived in the area.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Mass is mass, but reverent services always make me glad to be Christian.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
From the homily: "Give ourselves wholly to all men, as Christ does, especially those who grieve or suffer – for whom he has the greatest compassion." Also singing "While shepherds watched their flocks by night" to the tune of Cranbrook.