(This post contains a lot of Catholic terms. To all my non-Catholic friends curious about these terms, feel free to comment. I’ll try to explain the best way that I can)
A nun announced that the congregation were invited to go outside to watch the Easter fire be lit up and the Easter candle lit for the first time. Everyone – mostly Italian and Spanish families – lined up and made a circle around the fire. I stood near the doorway, clutching on tightly to the tiny glass that held my Easter candle in it. A few seconds later, Monsignor Antonio Guido Filipazzi – the Ambassador of Vatican City for Indonesia and the leader of that Easter Vigil mass – walked solemnly to the front of the camp fire, made the Sign of the Cross in Latin and started praying in Spanish.
That was the moment I knew that the mass was going to be an interesting one.
It all started with me flipping through the 2016 calendar and discovering that my 19th birthday happened to be the same day as Easter Vigil. As a Catholic, Easter Vigil is one of the most important masses to attend and the biggest mass of the year – with the liturgy lasting from 2 to 3 hours. There was no way I was going to miss mass and at the same time, I thought the day should be special. Two days before my birthday, I had lunch with one of our family friends and she mentioned something about an Easter Vigil mass led by a Vatican archbishop at a chapel in South Jakarta. From the information she’d got, the mass would be conducted in English so I asked if I could go too.
On March 26, after getting lost and somehow finding ourselves at Ragunan Zoo, we finally got to the chapel of Seminari Wacana Bakti, Pejaten, South Jakarta. The chapel was constructed like a dome with two entrances and not more than approximately 25 pews. It was also built next to a small garden area and since its surroundings included the dormitories for pastors-to-be, the entire chapel was so quiet save for a few birds chirping and nuns whispering while preparing for the mass.
I was an hour early and the entire chapel was still very much empty when I got there. The choir were still rehearsing and the archbishop hadn’t even arrived yet. So I knelt, thanked God for the chance to spend my birthday that way, took photos, then sat in silence, observing my surroundings.
Minute by minute ticked by and people began filing in – most of whom were Spanish and Italians judging by their language. There were only two altar boys on duty and the monsignor hand-picked four more from the congregation as he walked around, praying the rosary. All in all, there were about 20 congregation members – not much, but they greeted each other with so much love that it felt as if I were in a Spanish-Italian family reunion.
At five o’ clock, we were asked to go outside to watch the Easter fire being lit up, which smelled of pine cones and roses. Up to this point, I was still quite confident that the mass was going to be conducted in English in spite of having a Spanish liturgy in the mass book.
It was when the monsignor started praying in Spanish that I thought, “Plot twist! The mass is in Spanish!”
I tried recalling the few things I remembered about the language from randomly taking it up in junior high and found myself somehow understanding what the monsignor was saying.
As we were led back in by the monsignor holding the Easter candle and got our candles lit up, my brain was still scrambling to get grips on the language. My brain was even more on edge when one of the members of congregation stepped up to read the First Reading in Spanish, another to read the Second Reading in English, Third Reading in Italian, and finally, a nun stepped up to read the Epistle in Bahasa Indonesia.
I had never seen this much spontaneity in a Catholic mass before. None of the people reading from the Bible were dressed in the standard white robes that is required in every mass I’d ever attended. This was new for me.
The archbishop then stepped up to read the Gospel and delivered his homily in three languages: Italian, Spanish, and Bahasa Indonesia. He was struggling with the Bahasa Indonesia version but insisted to keep going anyway which was really cool of him. If I could summarize the homily based on the little bit of Spanish, Italian, and a lot of Bahasa Indonesia that I know, it’s essentially about joy – true joy, not false ones. True joy exists in God should we choose to live fully in Him – this message was everything I needed to hear and somehow came at the perfect timing.
Then came the part of the mass that made Easter Vigil so incredibly special: the renewal of baptismal vows. In this part, we recited the “I renounce” and “I believe” that we or our godfathers/godmothers said during our baptism while holding a candle and being sprayed with holy water. It was at this part that I kind of got emotional. Considered to be the sign of renewal in our lives, reciting the words felt like I was being born again, as if my slates were clean again and that I had another shot at being a better follower of God. To say them on my birthday was such a beautiful and emotional moment and blowing my Easter candle out right after the renewal sealed the deal for me.
The liturgy resumed like a normal Catholic mass with offerings, hymns, and the climax of every mass: the prayer of consecration. The prayer was recited in Italian, but somehow, I understood what the archbishop was saying. Then came the sign of peace and I shook hands with a lot of strangers who wished me peace. I knelt during Agnus Dei while everyone was standing and no one minded or cast me sideways glances. I received communion and we prayed and sang some more until finally the mass was dismissed with an Easter greeting in Bahasa Indonesia from the archbishop.
As soon as the archbishop came back out after changing from his robes, our family friend immediately pulled me forward to meet the archbishop and told him that it was my birthday. I asked if he could give me a blessing and he laid his hand on my head, made the Sign of the Cross and said with an Italian accent, “you are eee very young aaa.” (I kid you not that’s how he said it)
I snuck into the choir’s photo with Mgr. Guido then offered to take their photos using their phones. Several people came up to me and said “happy Easter” and some even said “happy birthday.” The nuns gave me a package containing several different kinds of cookies, a decorated plastic bag, and a bow. I went home, knowing that this wasn’t the fanciest birthday I’d ever had but incredibly content.
My quadrilingual mass experience was one I’ll remember for the rest of my life in the sense of how different it was from the Indonesian masses I usually attend. Liturgically speaking, it wasn’t perfect. The psalmist and Bible readers weren’t in their white robes. The altar boys were even hand-picked just minutes prior to the mass starting and didn’t really know what to do. The archbishop couldn’t stick incense into the gigantic Easter candle so he abandoned them. Sometimes the congregation prayed in different ways – some kneeling and some standing. It wasn’t perfect but in those imperfections, God managed to shine. It was all the more reminder that people can worship God in different ways. In those imperfections, I felt the presence of God, clearer and nearer than ever before, calling me and speaking to me through all the mishaps and language barriers.
What I’ve noticed in a lot of Indonesian parishes is that people too often put liturgy on the highest pedestal. Some pastors would cringe if liturgies go the wrong way or people wear the wrong clothes and honestly, that’s what bothers me about Catholicism in Indonesia. We often put too much care in these things that we forget that the essence of every mass is about God. We often care too much about whether we should be kneeling or standing than our prayers and our God to whom we’re praying.
This doesn’t mean I’m against the sanctity of the liturgy. On the contrary, I’ve remained a Catholic because of the liturgy. It comforts me that wherever I go, the liturgy will be the same and people will do the same thing in spite of different languages and cultures. It’s comforting that the Roman Catholic is a single church with a single denomination. And the hymns with the choir and everything, oh how wonderful they sound. But if we put too much care on these things instead of God who we worship with these things in the liturgy, that’s where it becomes a problem.
I honestly hope that one day, God will actually become the center of every mass – wherever it is and in whatever language.