Speaking somewhat flippantly, but not entirely unseriously, one of the lovely things about being Catholic is that it allows you to be at home in the world. You know that where ever you may go, no matter what the language spoken in the region, there is a set of people who move through the same motions as you when in community prayer. So all you have to do is bob along with the ritual motions, mumbling the prayers in your language underneath your breath, and voila, you can imagine yourself back home, worshiping the way in which you did when you were little.
For this reason, in the course of my many travels, and especially when homesick, the local church has provided a space to return to the womb, be it St. Paul’s Church in San Francisco (that operated as the set for the film Sister Act), the Mesquita in Cordoba or the Igreja de Santa Catarina and the Capela do Rato in Lisbon.
There are times though when all is not quite what you expect it to be; my experiences in the churches in Lisbon having been along those lines. There is a certain, shall we say, laxity among those who attend Mass in Lisbon. It should be borne in mind that while Portugal is referred to as a ‘Catholic country’, (whatever that may mean) at least in the urban centers, and among younger generations, there are not too many who attend church on a regular basis. It appears therefore, that a Church in decline is grateful that there are people attending Mass in the first place, and would rather not berate the requirements of comportment when the precious few wander in.
And such comportment! Take for example the situation where once they enter the church there is no expectation of sitting in silence until the priest enters to commence the Mass. Oh no! They enter and chatter, fall on each other in greeting, kissing and exchanging all manner of information. I kid you not, this one time, when entering the uncommonly crowded Capela rather late, I almost passed out, seeing a couple snuggle up to each other, apparently to save space for more people. If you go to church a couple or more minutes earlier, in the hope for a quiet prayer, more often than not, you are wont to hear someone chattering away. You could ofcourse leave this private, intense prayer time for once the entire Mass is over. But this option presents its own challenge. You see, at least in one of the locations I frequent for Mass, the congregation bounds out of church the moment the priest leaves the altar; regardless of the fact that the choir is still singing the recessional hymn. It is only in the villages, my informants assure me, that people still wait for the hymn to end. This leaves you looking like a yokel, when you stand, refusing to budge, until the hymn ends!
And yet for all of these shocking transgressions of propriety around the time of the Mass, there are some norms that the Portuguese follow that speak to the lack in Goan practice. For example the respect shown to the Blessed Sacrament as it makes its way from the altar to the tabernacle after the Communion rite. Almost without fail, the congregation stands up, as it should, in respect. In the often woefully empty Igreja de Santa Catarina, they continue to follow a touching custom, where after the Communion rite, the Blessed Sacrament is held aloft as it makes its way to the tabernacle and is shielded part of the way by an embroidered umbrella.
A home away from home it appears, can at times allow for culture shock!