Mystery Worshipper: Churchdoc
Church: St John’s Cathedral
Location: 's-Hertogenbosch, North Brabant, the Netherlands
Date of visit: Sunday, 23 March 2008, 10:30am
St John’s Cathedral is a so-called Kanjermonument ("whopper-monument" in Dutch) and so receives financial support from the Dutch government. It is a stunning 115 meter long Gothic masterpiece that grew out of renovations to the original Romanesque church dating from about 1220. The cathedral was finished around 1525 and features both a clock tower and a carillon. The carillon, recently restored, is regarded as one of the most beautiful and playable instruments of its kind. Almost every arc and rim of the exterior is occupied by sculptures ranging from saints to gargoyles. Sadly, the building's outer fabric has been badly damaged by the effects of years of acid rain but is in the process of being restored. Inside, the floor plan is a clear Latin cross. The intersection of the rib-vaulted nave and transept is topped with a 60m high dome, almost as high as the clock tower. There is a magnificent altarpiece and some remarkable stained glass, including a window dedicated in 2007 representing heaven and hell in about 20 different panes, one of which depicts an airplane about to crash into New York's World Trade Centre.
A vibrant, active parish congregation makes the cathedral its home.
The city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, or Den Bosch as it is called by the locals, was founded in 1185 and literally means "the duke’s forest" – a reference to the medieval castle and woodland that dominated this quaint little town back then. Today the city retains much of its original layout, with narrow alleys, old canals and perfectly preserved buildings lending a charming Old World feel to the place. Den Bosch was the birthplace of Heronimus Bosch, whose paintings full of monsters, humans in wildly imaginative poses, and mysterious symbolism enthrall the art world even today. The area around the cathedral has many old houses and small streets lined with shops, restaurants and bars.
The Revd Monsignor Antonius Lambertus Maria Hurkmans, Bishop of Den Bosch; the Revd Geert Jan van Rossem, dean of the cathedral; and another priest whose name I could not ascertain.
What was the name of the service?Solemn High Mass
How full was the building?
Full, with many people standing.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The organist played an impressive work by Langlais with a "Lumen Christi" theme in it, thereby connecting the Easter Vigil mass to this celebration.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
A specially designed booklet made for Easter Sunday.
What musical instruments were played?
Both choir organ and great organ.
Did anything distract you?
The bishop walked as though his back was causing him a great deal of pain. Someone told me that he had had surgery some weeks before.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
As stiff as upper lips get. Very solemn – crowds of servers, acolytes, lectors, sacred ministers. Plenty of incense. A sung gospel. And so on.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – A remarkably clear, fresh and honest sermon by the bishop. I was so startled by his message that I blinked! It gave me an understanding of the real meaning of Easter.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The true resurrection of Christ takes place in the heart of each and every one of us. Christ becomes new through us and through all people who understand this sacred truth.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Agnus Dei of the Palestrina mass setting, sung by the cathedral choir in a very serene and clear way. The simple beauty of Palestrina's polyphony was amplified by the breathtaking interior of the cathedral in combination with the silent atmosphere just before communion.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
One of the many children – a three year old boy – escaped from his mom and managed to run back and forth in front of the high altar. He seemed to take delight in emitting a stream of high, short screams of joy and letting the cathedral's wonderful acoustics echo them back. At length mom managed to recapture the little defendant, but not without a final round of shrieks of protest.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. Apparently it is typical for Roman Catholics to enter and depart church in complete anonymity. Everyone appeared to be heading for the 25 or so bars and brasseries just outside the church, and so did we.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Cigars, sherry, and that delightful Den Bosch pastry known as Bosse Bollen, a cream-filled souffle dressed in chocolate and attacked with a fork – the ultimate excuse to eat as much as you can!
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – The church was magnificent and the liturgy simply beautiful. I only regret that no welcoming committee was on hand to introduce one to the splendour of the building.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
The bishop's message that Christ's resurrection takes place within us so that he becomes new in us, and we in him.