Mystery Worshipper: Stu Pormundi
Church: St Thomas's
Location: Prague, Czech Republic
Date of visit: Sunday, 24 July 2016, 11:00am
An Augustinian church has existed on the site since 1316. The church we see today is an early 18th century Baroque confection in gold and cream. Ceiling frescoes show the lives of St Augustine and St Thomas. The towering ensemble around the main altar includes two huge copies of Peter Paul Rubens' The Martyrdom of St Thomas the Apostle and The Conversation of St Augustine, the originals of which hang in the National Gallery of Prague. According to legend, St Augustine, while writing his treatise De Trinitate, encountered a child trying to scoop up the ocean using a seashell. "That's impossible!" Augustine exclaimed. The child answered, "So is it impossible to comprehend the Trinity." This is a church rich in paintings and carvings everywhere you look there is something to intrigue you. Their website describes all of this splendour in painstaking detail.
The parish carries on a special ministry to the English-speaking people of Prague, but mass is celebrated in Czech and in Spanish as well as in English. There is a religious education program for children. They put on an annual pilgrimage to the Shrine of the Gracious Madonna in the village of Zajecov. During "Augustinian Week" in April of each year, there are lectures, prayers, special services and concerts. The parish festival, in May of each year, features barbecue, children's games, and activities for adults. They support an orphanage in the Democratic Republic of Congo and run a clothing drive at Eastertide each year.
The church is in the Mala Strana (Lesser Town) area, a maze of narrow cobbled-stoned streets that wind their way between historical monuments on the slope leading up to Prague Castle. There are many restaurants and hotels catering to the flocks of tourists (including, alas, the ubiquitous McDonald's). The area is rich in Catholic associations, including the huge ornate St Nicholas church and the Church of Our Lady Victorious, which houses the famous statue of the Holy Infant of Prague.
The Revd William S. Faix, OSA, pastor. An unnamed lady with a South African accent was lector.
What was the name of the service?Mass in English
How full was the building?
Every pew was reasonably full, but people did not sit close together.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
There was no one to meet and greet. There were piles of the necessary books as you entered. Even so, I missed them and had to go back from my pew to get one.
Was your pew comfortable?
Excruciating! I experienced this in other old Czech churches. A panel running the length of the pew protrudes and hits you just below the shoulder blades if you try sitting back. So you either endure this or crouch forward in an equally uncomfortable position.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
A low murmur of conversation did not affect a prayerful atmosphere. The beauty and antiquity of the church is conducive to prayer.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
(Cantor) "Please stand for our opening hymn."
(Priest) "We are in a time of transition, with young people passing through Prague on their way to World Youth Day and also our own Augustinian Youth Encounter."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The hefty service book combined both the readings for the liturgical year and a generous selection of hymns.
What musical instruments were played?
Keyboard. But see below.
Did anything distract you?
The music group struggled to set up a stand for the keyboard. They set it up three times and each time it collapsed. Time was ticking past. Finally, after the bell had rung for the start of the service, they put a table there. The lack of preparation continued the missal had not been marked up and the celebrant searched for the right place. Then when he read the gospel, the gospel had not been marked up either and he could not find it. Eventually the lector gave him her copy.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Straightforward middle-of-the-road Sunday mass with hymns. No fuss.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – The pastor has a warm, pleasant American voice, with clear intonation. He preached sitting.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The gospel reading was Luke 11:1-11 (Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray), so Father William preached about prayer as a conversation with God. Conversation, he said, requires listening and also for our hearts to be truly open to the one to whom we are speaking.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The beauty of the church was riveting and an evocation of the beauty of heaven.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The young man on my right had a terrible cold. He repeatedly blew his nose into his hankie. He did this discreetly but it sounded like gallons of phlegm. I began to dread this awful gurgling.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People left quickly. Many were visitors like me. There seemed little conversation. Also, as soon as the mass ended, a lady in a large hat in the front pew began a very loud recitation of the rosary in Spanish, using a hand-held mic. The celebrant had apologised that because of another mass, he would not be available afterwards.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
The parish bulletin invited everybody to tea/coffee but there was no indication of where. The lady stacking the books had no idea either. I went searching into the sacristy and cloister but no sign of refreshments.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – If I lived in Prague I think I would look elsewhere for a stronger sense of community.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
An item from the sermon: that in the medieval period it was thought that a vein ran from the fourth finger to the heart. Hence it was chosen as the ring finger.