Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mass at San Xavier changes atheist from Sweden

San Xavier Mission in Tucson has been in operation for more than 200 years. (Photo by Mike McKisson/ASNS)

By Sandra Westdahl
Arizona-Sonora News Service

When I first entered San Xavier Mission for Sunday Mass, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the massive altar. Even though I was too far away to clearly see every detail, my first impression was one of awe.

San Xavier is nothing like the churches I have been to in my native Sweden. Even though I’m an atheist, I wanted to find out what it would be like going to a Mass at the Spanish Baroque church that has been in operation for more than 200 years.

The interior of the church is filled with colorful murals and ornate statues. I couldn’t keep my eyes off the statues. Their facial expressions and the clothes they wore made them scary looking. I have never seen anything like that in a church before.

Similar to a Swedish church, people were quietly sitting on uncomfortable pews waiting for the service to begin. The wood of the pews was distressed—as if it represented the history of the mission. The distinctive scent of candles and a musty old church reminded me of home.

There was a calm excitement in the air as the church filled up with people.

As I sat down on a bench in the middle of the mission, an old man with a bent back slowly walked past me. The frail man, whose face and hands were wrinkled like a raisin, plopped down in a seat in front of me. His cane fell to the floor, making a loud echo inside the mission.

Another man’s colorful black blazer reminded me of a Mariachi player. He had a well-trimmed mustache. He stood out from the crowd because most people were dressed more casually than I expected.

A small choir started singing along with a single guitar player. The people were standing up. I started feeling nervous because I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid that I would sit through the Mass not understanding anything of what was going on.

The priest, Father Richard Gielow, who was visiting from Missouri, entered the mission with two women wearing red capes. The woman who walked in front of him held a tall cross.

The priest began the Mass by comically saying that Catholics can’t sleep Saturday night because of the excitement of going to Sunday Mass. The crowd chuckled.

The priest wasn’t a young man, but he seemed to be young of spirit. He kept moving around and spoke with excitement in his voice.

I couldn’t wait to hear what he was going to say next.

I suddenly felt calm. The Mass was a lot more modernized and comprehensible than I expected it to be. The priest talked about daily struggles people have and how small changes can make a big difference.

He made an excellent point when he said that men gossip as much as women. He said that it’s important to stop talking bad about others. He paused for a moment. Then he said that it might be especially difficult to talk nice about a person driving 45 mph in the left lane on the freeway. The audience burst out in laughter.

The priest continued by saying that people visit San Xavier to get nourished and strengthened so that they can become better people.

The only time I felt lost and rather uncomfortable was when people prayed. During the Mass, people stood and prayed out loud together. Several times during the prayers, I glanced around, and to my surprise people knew all the words.

I was impressed, for in a traditional Swedish church that is not common.

Throughout the Mass, the audience listened intently to the priest’s dynamic voice. He reminded the people that everyone is equal regardless of religion, ethnicity and political views. I felt something that I never experienced before—as if the mission and the people were united by harmony.

At the end of the Mass, some people quickly followed the priest outside while others slowly walked up to the front of the church to take pictures and light candles.

As I was walked outside, the bright sun hurt my eyes. I felt spiritual.

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