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St Stephen's Basilica (St Istvan Bazilika), Budapest, Hungary
Mystery Worshipper: Leo.
The church: St Stephen's Basilica (St Istvan Bazilika), Budapest, Hungary.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: This church is the city's largest and looks suspiciously like a copy of St Paul's Cathedral, London. It was built on the site of the unholy "Prank Theatre", an animal-cruelty extravaganza in which bears, wolves and hyenas tore each other to shreds while bloodthirsty crowds egged them on. Construction of the basilica began in 1851, but was not completed until 1905, because the 96m tall dome caved in. The church contains the mummified right hand of St Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian state. If you drop a 100-forint coin in the slot, the glass case lights up to reveal this celebrated extremity in all its gnarled, brown glory. The price is the same whether you've come to venerate a holy relic or merely to indulge your morbid curiosity.
The church: It seems pretty anonymous. People come to get what they want, either the mass or to do the tourist thing.
The neighbourhood: This is the central part of Pest, with sombre streets of ponderously neoclassical buildings interrupted by squares flanked by art nouveau or neo-renaissance piles, busy with office workers by day and bustling with tourists in the evenings and at weekends
The cast: There were no names that I could see. There were three ministers, robed high-mass style, with the celebrant in a purple biretta, which I assume makes him a monseignor, or some sort of canon.
What was the name of the service?
Szentmise – Holy Mass.

How full was the building?
Packed, with between 400 and 500 people.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I had to be very assertive to get past a rope meant to keep tourists out. It was more off-putting than welcoming.

Was your pew comfortable?
A chair covered with comfortable padding.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Hushed expectation – everyone, even the many children, was silent and there was no organ wallpaper music until the sanctuary party entered.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
My Hungarian is non-existent but, judging by the sign of the cross being made, it was the standard, "In the name of the Father..."

What books did the congregation use during the service?
No books whatsoever. The congregation was fairly passive throughout but they did join in the said gloria and sang some of the responses.

What musical instruments were played?
In the absence of a choir, a melodramatic organ accompanied the special moments of the mass. It reminded me of the music used in silent movies. There was also a lone cantor.

Did anything distract you?
Not knowing the language, several thoughts and observations crossed my mind: I was sitting under the dome which previously fell in, which gave pause for thought; I was impressed by the bronze bas reliefs all over the walls and ceiling; I was amused that the celebrant had two altar boys to carry, respectively, his biretta and his spectacles (I could do with someone to look after my reading glasses when I lead worship); I was amused that the second acolyte was never quite sure where he was supposed to be standing; I liked the censing being done by the deacon instead of the thurifer; I disliked the time-saving practice whereby the altar was prepared during the intercessions and the collection was still being taken until well into the eucharistic prayer; and I was disappointed that the chalice was not offered to anyone, as all were communicated from the tabernacle – "Here's one I prepared earlier."

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was an old-fashioned high mass which I thought Vatican II had done away with (though it was celebrated facing the people). There was plenty of drama and incense, but it was done most efficiently in exactly 55 minutes.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
Nine minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – his altar boy still had his glasses, so he couldn't have been using notes. He used lots of hand gestures as if painting a picture of the scene in the gospel reading. The people seemed very attentive and maintained eye-contact with him throughout.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
Judging by the hand movements, the gospel reading for the day.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
This is subjective on my part, rather than having anything to do with this particular service. What was heavenly was being in a huge church with a large congregation, obeying our Lord's command in remembrance of him in the knowledge that millions of other Christians all over the world were doing exactly the same, though in different ways.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Also subjective – as a catholicly-minded Anglican, I am fearful for my denomination's future, as evangelicals seem to be taking it over, and as a shortage of priests is leading to suggestions that we have the eucharist less often and make do with "services of the word". I felt a very strong tug to give up on it and submit to the Roman pontiff, after which I would know I could count on the mass being available.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. I was caught up in the stream of people piling out of the nave as another stream (of tourists) came to fill the vacuum left.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
I don't think there was any.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – With several masses each day, it is a bit like a fast-food chain where you can go in, get communion and leave. I would probably want a smaller, more homely church where I could know and be known.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, and part of the whole company in earth and in heaven throughout the ages, pleading the holy sacrifice.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The assistant in charge of the celebrant's reading glasses. I want one!
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