It was arranged for Marcia to accompany me as Anglican lay representative to the diocesan ecumenical Advent Vigil in the city port of Messina, where you catch the ferry to Calabria. Local ecumenical activist Suore Tarcisa, a Franciscan Missionary Sister, arranged for two friends to give us a lift. We all met up at the Agip filling station, just down the road, at six thirty. The ride on the autostrada in the dark was a challenge to cope with, being a front seat passenger who'd forgotten the Italian way of driving. I was glad however to be able to follow the conversation due to the clarity and measured pace of older people chatting together. To my relief, found I was able to participate in a limited way and be understood. It's fifteen years since I last had to make the effort to communicate in basic Italian, learned thirty five years ago when the kids were little and we had camping holidays in Italy.
We arrived for the service at St Julian's church (the Spanish not the British martyr) in such good time, we were able to go to a Pasticerria/Tea Room/Bar nearby for a drink and chat beforehand. Two of us opted for hot chocolate - delivered in a pouring jug - thick and creamy like the Spanish version, and marvel of marvels - no sugar at all! Just add your own if you're desperate. A wonderful alternative to coffee before a long liturgy. I wondered if this drink was a legacy of seventeenth century Spanish rule? It reminded me of Clare's best choccy sauce, made with cacao. Three very professional looking folk-costumed buskers came into the restaurant to entertain us with a few traditional songs. Two played piano accordeons, the third a wooden recorder. Donations were collected in a decorated Sicilian pottery wine carafe - all with charm and flourish.
The church was full, an all-age congregation of over five hundred at eight thirty of a Saturday night. There was a combined choir and music group, loudly rehearsing music for the service - all in contemporary Italian middle of the road pop music worship mode. Stuff that kids and grannies could join in if they had the words in front of them. The high altar was masked by a screen on which videos and various other interpretative slides were projected during the service. Quite apart from the content, the technical quality of sound and video throughout was flawless and integrated without embarrassing lacunae into the fabric of the service. It's the kind of stuff I'd rather avoid in worship normally because not enough effort ever seems to go into quality. I wish people back home could have been there and be challenged by this level of excellence.
The Messina diocese Vicar General presided and the Rector of the diocesan seminary was among those in attendance. We chatted as he was circulating among guests and I told him about my engagement at St Michael's. One of his students was acting as master of ceremonies. He didn't look old enough to don a clerical collar and cassock, but things are different here. I'd been instructed to turn up in liturgical kit, so I wore an alb with a purple stole borrowed from St George's sacristy. Standing chatting as we were waiting for other clerics to arrive, a young woman approached and asked if I could hear her confession. Mi dispiace, non sono pastore cattlolico I said, and directed her into the crowd of gathering clergy. In a few moments I observed her sitting with the Rector of the seminary in a corner of the not very quiet, and rather public sanctuary, busy with service preparations, and he was ministering to her. Nobody seemed curious about them. It was perceived as a natural normal thing to do.
As well as Anglicans, there were German Lutheran, Greek and Romanian Orthodox clergy representing the wider church at the service. Each of us had a prayer to say. Lay representatives were also given something to do. Two groups of children took part, dancing in procession. The first accompanied the Gospel entrance - about twenty girls clad in white, many bearing lights to place at the foot of the altar in conclusion. It was done at a measured pace, to an Israeli melody, and simply choreographed to great effect. The second was a traditional votive dance done by six Sri Lankan children, part of a second procession, in which lay people delivered to the altar baskets of tiny paper scrolls (like fortune cookies, but bearing a Christian message), for subsequent distribution to members of the congregation. At a rough guess, around ten per cent of the assembly had active roles in making this event happen. Very much a tribute to church that knows how to give its laity creative freedom.
Two scripture lessons were read, both worthy of comment and application, but maybe there was too much. The Vicar General also spoke at length (without notes I observed), and too quickly for me to follow. The service was a hundred minutes long. Too long, finishing at ten past ten. We started late, not because we weren't ready but because the Lutheran Pastor we delayed in arriving. Now that's what I call ecumenical courtesy. My first ecumenical service with Italian Catholics was 1984 in alpine Macugnaga on a family holiday. There were lots of francophone celebrations in Geneva, including concelebrating at the consecration of a church. Then there was the epic experience of an ecumencial service at the International Festival of Circus under the Big Top in Monaco in 2001.
This was my first ecumenical Big Event since then, equal in every way in devotion to excellence on the part of host organisers. Having said that, I wish I could have written or edited the prayer I was asked to say on this occasion. It was a little convoluted, not easy to speak/pray in any language. And as for thoughts expressed? Well, I have a few questions about whether they properly expressed catholic missionary doctrine, let alone its Anglican equivalent. In many ways, a service put together like this represents the huge good will of the Catholic church towards its ecumenical partners. If only we all had time and energy to make an occasion like this the fruit of dialogue - learning about each others' mind rather than guessing.
Nevertheless, it was an honour to be there, to represent the Anglican way, and learn anew how much remains to be achieved on the way to complete reconciliation among Christians. I have no doubt that it's worth the effort.