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704: Vilnius Cathedral, Vilnius, Lithuania
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Vilnius Cathedral
Mystery Worshipper: Egeria.
The church: Vilnius Cathedral, Vilnius, Lithuania.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: A large, neo-classical building set in a huge open space, with a detached (and older) bell tower next to it. This cathedral, both inside and outside, is white and severe. I had found it cold and rather forbidding when I went inside a couple of days earlier, despite a handsome high altar and one beautiful baroque chapel surviving from a former building. But it felt very different when it was full of people.
The neighbourhood: The cathedral is on the edge of the Old Town of Vilnius, with the castle on a mound behind it, the university a few minutes' walk away, and a couple of major shopping streets converging on it. This morning, as it was Palm Sunday, there was a market in front of the cathedral where the elaborate palms that Vilnius specialises in, as well as bunches of juniper and catkins, were on sale. Vilnius itself – or rather the old part, as there are plenty of drab building from the Soviet era further out – is a beautiful and oddly numinous place, full of churches and handsome old buildings.
The cast: Cardinal Backis, Archbishop of Vilnius.
What was the name of the service?
Palm Sunday Mass (or rather, masses).

How full was the building?
Standing room only – about the same density as rush hour on the London Underground.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
Nothing like that was possible. The entrances of the cathedral were full of people squeezing in and squeezing out all the time. I discovered that Lithuanians don't shake hands during the peace, just turn and nod at those around them.

Was your pew comfortable?
Well, there were pews, but I don't know what you had to do to secure a place in one! I stood throughout, crammed into one of the side aisles with hundreds of others.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
There wasn't really a chance for any pre-service atmosphere, because as soon as one mass ended the next began. There were at least four that morning, one after another. But even with the constant coming and going, the atmosphere was quiet and reverent.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
I don't know, partly because I know about three words of Lithuanian and partly because I was concentrating on finding somewhere to stand. But I assume the usual words at the beginning of the mass.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None. Everyone seemed to know the service and the hymns by heart.

What musical instruments were played?

Did anything distract you?
Almost nothing! Despite the crowds and my total lack of Lithuanian, the congregation was so rapt that even I found it extraordinarily easy to concentrate. I did find my attention wandering during the reading of the passion narrative, which was read by two priests, taking alternate verses, and I studied some of the not very thrilling examples of religious art hanging on walls and pillars nearby.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Traditional and dignified – I suppose what I'd expect of a cathedral on Palm Sunday. There was plenty of incense, I'm glad to say.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Two minutes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
I've no idea – but full marks to Cardinal Backis for keeping it short, because there isn't much a preacher can usefully say after the reading of the passion story.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The rapt attentiveness of the packed congregation, and the smell of the juniper branch I was holding mingling with the incense.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Accustomed as I am to an Anglican slither from pew to kneeler, having to kneel on the stone floor – or rather having to get up again in a very small space encumbered by handbag, camera, and palm!

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
No chance to hang around – well, I could have done, and heard mass again. People were already packing in for the next service while the previous shift were still taking communion.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I went off and had a pizza to bring me back down to earth. There are a lot of pizza places in Vilnius, and Lithuanian pizzas are quite something.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
I can't really say, because I'm not a Roman Catholic and so would be excluded from mass, and I've no idea what it's like on an ordinary Sunday. Oh, and I'd have to learn Lithuanian. But I'm very glad I went.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Oh yes!

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The beautiful and elaborate palms that everyone was holding – and the fact that I've never seen so many people going to church!
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