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A Tale of Two Masses

January 4, AD 2012 8 Comments

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?

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]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.[/author_info] [/author]

Filed in: Columnists, Religion

About the Author:

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.

  • Absolutely beautiful reflection. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • richard

    A very interesting read about your experience on the islands.

    As an enthusiastic reader of history, I wonder if they had to undergo the WWII event?

  • I’ve attended Mass in Spanish when I went to Peru. The church was less crowded and there was a woman in the pews singing all the hymns. I confused the priest by trying to receive Communion in my hands instead of in my mouth. Since then I got scared of going to Mass there and messing up haha

  • @Richard Kosrae definitely had its importance in WWII as far as a strategic hold of the Japanese. However, no battles were fought there, and most of the impact came from citizens being used as laborers on other islands. Its current association with the US came from Japan being forced to give up its territories in the Pacific after WWII, the UN taking control (led by the US), and then Kosrae uniting with three others to form the FSM – a sovereign state – and then entering into an agreement with the US.

    @Mariella I’m sure that – at the end of the day – you’ll learn to adapt. Think of all the graces alone that come from simply attending Mass. 🙂

  • It’s nice that the polyglot languages have brought consolation to some.

    The disastrous abandonment of the Traditional Mass in Latin, which has so undermined the unity, the cohesion, and the spiritual power of the Church in the Modern World, speaks for itself.


    Eventually the Church will return to Herself.

  • I studied abroad in South Korea, and attending Mass was both intimidating and wonderful! I mostly went to English Masses, but before I found them I went to a Korean Mass. For me, being there to worship our God with my Korean brothers and sisters in their own language was powerful. Those of us in the English Mass were truly universal. We were all visitors to Korea, bringing with us different customs and expressions. Both the Masses in English and Korean were lovely. I think attending the Mass in Korean for me would be comparable to Latin. I didn’t understand the words, but I did understand the tone. It was very prayerful.

  • What a great travel story. The beautiful universality of the Mass is one reason why no one should skip Sunday church just because they’re on vacation! I have such fond memories of experiencing Mass on trips – at World Youth Day, at an oratory in London, at a parish populated by the poor of Jamaica, and even in West Virginia school gyms on service trips.

  • Amen. I came to that realization when I spent 2yrs. in the Monastery of the Blessed Sacrament, Farmington Hills, MI. Many of the sisters were American born and bred, but there were also several sisters were from various countries in Africa and Asia, one from Australia, plus we’d get visitors–missionary priests mostly–from Latin America and Europe. It was my first real exposure to the Church universal. Talking with them helped me understand how narrowly we can view the Church in America. Doesn’t everyone want to practice contraception, abort their children, practice homosexuality and have women ordained as priests? Uh…not really. It also helped me to appreciate the freedom we have in America. One of the sisters from Vietnam attended Mass at 4:00 am in order to fly under the radar of the communist government. The congregation there is still struggling for official recognition and they never go out in their habits. Quite a bit different from here.