Mystery Worshipper: Amanda B. Reckondwyth
Church: St Gregory's
Location: Phoenix, Arizona, USA
Date of visit: Friday, 15 April 2022, 3:00pm
The congregation first worshipped at the Arizona State Fairgrounds, and later in a renovated Army barracks. Their present building dates from 1957. The architect was Edward J. Schulte, who specialized in churches that blended traditional design with modern functionality. True to form, Schulte's creation is a modern take on the Spanish Mission style. A bell tower dominates the exterior. The interior is awash in gold leaf and multicolored stained glass. The black marble altar is backed by a large crucifix. It was, of course, stripped for Good Friday, but most people genuflected anyway as they entered.
They maintain a K-8 parish school originally staffed by nuns of the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, more commonly known as the Sisters of Loretto, but which is staffed nowadays primarily by laypersons. There is adult Bible study every Tuesday evening, but I could not get a feel for what other parish organizations there may be. There are four Sunday masses: two in English and two in Spanish, plus the Saturday vigil mass in English preceded by confession; and a weekday mass in English.
They are located on North 18th Avenue just north of Osborn Road, a predominantly working-class residential neighborhood that has attracted a Vietnamese ex-pat population. A rather interesting Vietnamese restaurant, to which I adjourned for post-service dinner, is just around the corner. The Vietnamese Alliance Church of Phoenix is also nearby, as is Tru Luv Church, a member of the Gospel Coalition of Arizona, whose members (quoting from their website) 'are troubled by the idolatry of personal consumerism and the politicization of faith; on the other hand, we are distressed by the unchallenged acceptance of theological and moral relativism.' Hmmm ... Miss Amanda thinks she'll be back in this neighborhood one Sunday soon.
Two priests: the parochial administrator and the weekend assistant, both vested in red. They were assisted by two servers in alb, red cincture and pectoral cross. Both were properly shod in black, although one was wearing sneakers – I forgive him, though, as at least they were black and both acolytes performed their duties with reverence and dignity. There were also several lay readers.
What was the name of the service?The Passion of the Lord.
How full was the building?
It's a large church – it can probably seat around 500. I'd say it was about three-eighths full. A good crowd, of all ages and genders. About half, I'd say, wore masks – the altar party didn't.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
Was your pew comfortable?
The unpadded wooden pew was a little shallow and the angle of the back was a little severe, but it was basically OK. I've sat in better; I've sat in worse.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
People sat quietly for the most part. A choir of about a dozen singers, mostly women and only two men, were positioned in the north transept. They rehearsed one number to the tune of Picardy but I couldn't pick out the words – until later (read on). I was surprised at the amount of bustling that was taking place in the sanctuary – several ladies puttered about at various chores.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
'Please kneel.' Whereupon the altar party processed in silently: one acolyte bearing the processional cross (unveiled), followed by the other acolyte and the two priests.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. See the heavenly bits below.
What musical instruments were played?
Grand piano, in perfect tune, and flute to accompany the psalm.
Did anything distract you?
The kneelers were spring-loaded – as soon as you got up from kneeling, they popped back into their up position. The St John Passion was read by lectors and one of the priests – the lector reading Pilate's part was an elderly lady with a timid little voice. Not my image of Pilate, but it had a certain charm, and the Passion is not type-cast after all.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A fairly straightforward Good Friday liturgy: opening prayer, readings, St John Passion, sermon, solemn collects, veneration of the Cross with reproaches (but read on), communion from the reserved Sacrament. It was spoken except for the psalm and the Ecce lignum crucis, although that was chanted recto tono, not to the prescribed tune (what would St Gregory have thought? I wondered). During the veneration, in lieu of the reproaches, the choir sang an English translation of Adoramus te Christe to the Picardy tune that they had rehearsed. At communion, the reserved Sacrament was brought in without crotalus, but (I'm pleased to say) with humeral veil.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
10 — I'm flipping all the cards. The weekend assistant priest spoke clearly and his sermon was well thought out and well organized.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
One might think that the Cross makes no sense. Why worship a loser? But it made perfect sense to God. Just as a parent often wishes that he or she could bear a child's suffering, God the Father bore the suffering of his only begotten Son for our sake. What an act of perfect love! Just as God committed himself to us, so must we commit ourselves to God in an act of love. Good Friday is a day of love.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Good Friday liturgy is not as familiar to your average churchgoer as the Sunday mass is, but there was a complete absence of 'prompting': No 'Now we do this, now we do that.' Just 'Please rise' or 'please kneel', or better still, a subtle hand gesture to indicate what the congregation should do. I found this absolutely heavenly! And to the solemn collects were added two special entreaties: for those affected by the pandemic and for peace in Ukraine.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I would have to be very nit-picky to identify anything here. Perhaps the fact that the choir rehearsed in church before the service. Are there no choir rooms? And the amount of puttering about that took place in the sanctuary before the service. Both of these distractions diminished the solemn dignity of the occasion. But I'm nit-picking. This was a beautiful service, beautifully carried out.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We were asked to leave in silence, and so we did.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I had a delicious dinner at the aforementioned Vietnamese restaurant in the neighborhood.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 — This is not my neighborhood, and I am perfectly happy with my regular church. But if all of the special occasion services are done as well as this one was, I'd be happy to check them out again.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. The Good Friday liturgy is one of the most moving services of the entire church year, and I was glad I had experienced it here.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
'Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?' spoken by that timid little old lady named Pontius Pilate.