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A Tale of Two Masses

Friends, I have good news. We are indeed part of a universal church.

During the course of the past month, I have had a number of Mass firsts (the new translations, my first Tridentine Mass), but there are two Masses in particular I want to share with you – Masses that have given me first hand experience in how catholic our church really is.

My little sister is currently volunteering at the high school on the island of Kosrae, out in Micronesia. With the way all of my siblings’ break schedules fell out, my parents decided that Christmas would be spent in Honolulu, Hawaii this year. Additionally, I had the opportunity to fly back to Kosrae with my sister and spend a week with her on her little island.

St. Augustine By-the-Sea, where I visited for Christmas Eve

Although I’ve never traveled to the islands of the Pacific before, I came into Hawaii with low expectations for Christmas Eve Mass. Given the hit-and-miss nature of the previous Christmas Eve Masses I’ve attended while traveling, not to mention that this one would be in the heart of Honolulu’s tourist district, I figured I shouldn’t get my hopes up for a beautiful tribute to Christ’s birth. After negotiating with my parents about the wisdom of walking back from midnight Mass by myself, I compromised with the 9 PM Mass. Imagine my surprise then when I showed up to a Mass entirely sung…in Tongan. It was the only Christmas Mass not in English, and to think that I would have missed it had I gone to midnight Mass!

Traditional Tongan dress (courtesy of behang)

Mass in Tongan was indescribable. While I have greatly enjoyed the Latin and Gregorian chant I have been exposed to, it was inspiring to see a culture so reverently incorporating themselves with the Body of Christ. The local Tongan community was dressed in their traditional best outfits, Father celebrated Mass sung in Tongan (his first time in the language, too!), and the choir – it was amazing. One of the best I’ve ever heard. Even though I couldn’t understand much of it, the tone they were conveying was clear – Christ is born. Hallelujah.

Two days after the Tongan Mass, I was setting foot in Kosrae.

Out there, church is an expectation for all on Sundays. The state is completely Christian after missionaries visited the island, and the Mormons still have a regular contingent. Although all of the other states in the Fedorated States of Micronesia (FSM) are predominately Catholic, this one is predominately Protestant. With only one Catholic church that has about 50 parishoners, the diocese sends a preist from Pohnpei (a neighboring FSM state) sporadically, about once or twice a year.

Sporting our muumuus

So when my sister and I dressed up in our Sunday best – muumuus! – and biked to church on January 1, I resigned myself to a simple Eucharistic service and figured I could go to Mass during my layover in Honolulu in two days. Imagine my surprise when I saw someone setting up a chalice on the altar. Surely this must be the Mass! When Father came out to make sure everything was in its place, I was giddy. Here I am, on an island I hadn’t even heard of 10 months ago, celebrating Mass with a priest who is only around for one or two Sundays a year. In a muumuu, no less.

As can be expected, this was in no way as elegantly put together as the Tongan Mass. Since it’s such an unusual occurrence to have a priest celebrating Mass, there were awkward stops and starts, hesitancy with the singing, and several parts during the Eucharistic Liturgy where only a handful of us knew the responses. Despite having the new missal, I doubt anyone there even knew there was a new translation. How could they? With no priest, and almost no internet, how would you know?

But there were three baptisms (please say a prayer for Anna, Jones, and Romeo). Five first communions. And a large number of beaming family members present as they witnessed their little ones take their first steps in the faith. Family members who promised to raise them in the light of Christ.

The tabernacle in Kosrae

Even more importantly, there was the Eucharist. They always have consecrated hosts in the tabernacle, but to be able to receive from the priest in the midst of Mass was exciting. Here is a group of people who see a priest twice a year, if they’re lucky. That’s two confessions a year, two Masses a year, two baptismal rites a year, maximum.

I’ve been told repeatedly since converting that this is a universal church. A church with one faith, one truth. Since converting, I have occasionally become cynical about this mantra. Despite our proclaimed catholicity, there always seems to be great variety of ways in which Mass is celebrated, the way Catholicism is defined. Liberties are taken with what is supposed to be universal. It was refreshing then to see our common heritage in a new light. One in which I could attend Mass in other languages, in other countries, and have brothers and sisters who understood what we were witnessing. Mass was Mass, regardless of any of the above factors. I was at home, even when 6,700 miles from home.

Have you had the opportunity to attend a Mass that is outside of your normal routine? Perhaps in another country, another rite, or another language? What surprised you? What did you take away from the experience?

Allie Terrell is a 2010 convert to Catholicism after dabbling in a few different trains of religious thought. She graduated from Rose-Hulman in 2009 with a degree in computer science, and is now pursuing her doctorate in the hopes of teaching some day. When she can spare a few hours, Allie likes to visit religious sites and work on her photography. She blogs about her journeys at Here Is The Church.
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