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1137: La Cathedrale de St Jean-Baptiste, Perpignan, Pyrenees-Orientales, France
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La Cathedrale de St Jean-Baptiste, Perpignan, Pyrenees-Orientales, France
Mystery Worshipper: Bishop's Finger.
The church: La Cathedrale de St Jean-Baptiste, Perpignan, Pyrenees-Orientales, France.
Denomination: Roman Catholic.
The building: This magnificent building has one of the largest aisleless nave spaces in France – 80 metres long, 18 metres wide and 26 metres high. Begun by King Sancho of Majorca in 1324, it was not completed until 1509 (on a different plan from that envisaged at first) and became a cathedral in 1601. The main sources of light are the windows around the apse and in the transepts – the north and south walls of the nave are occupied by numerous side chapels with huge baroque altarpieces, resulting in a dim religious gloom. Much of the interior is in a rather dilapidated state (by English standards) but some restoration work is under way.
The church: This is not only the seat of the bishop of Perpignan but also a busy city centre parish church, with responsibility for one or two other churches and chapels as well. Tourists are numerous, but the sheer size of the nave prevents any sense of crowding.
The neighbourhood: . Perpignan has a population of around 147,000 and is a rather pleasant city, but has a higher number of unemployed and poor people than many other French cities of similar size. The area immediately around the cathedral (i.e. the city centre) consists of typically French narrow streets full of restaurants, cafes and bars with lots of character! Sadly, a racial murder followed by outbreaks of street fighting had occurred in one of the suburbs the previous weekend. A second murder, on the afternoon of the Sunday I was there, led to serious rioting – much to the shock and horror of the whole area.
The cast: The celebrant and preacher was (I believe) one Pere Blondeau, assisted by a most versatile chap who acted as choirmaster, cantor and deacon and performed well in all roles. There were also a thurifer, boat-boy, crucifer, two taperers and two acolytes, all male and aged from about 8 to 30. A dozen assorted singers formed a small but effective choir, and two ladies from the congregation read the lessons.
What was the name of the service?
10.30am Messe (Mass) for Le Corp et le Sang du Christ (Corpus Christi), celebrated here on Sunday 29 May.

How full was the building?
From about 200 to 300 people of all ages, but in a building this size we seemed a bit thin nonetheless. I was led to believe that the cathedral draws many tourists during the peak summer months.

Did anyone welcome you personally?

Was your pew comfortable?
Yes, and it had a comfy wooden kneeler as well.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quite reverential, with many kneeling in prayer, although others were chatting – but, again, the size of the building meant that any noise was quite unobtrusive. A couple of minutes or so before mass began, the various members of the sanctuary party meandered in ones and twos through the nave from the sacristy at the east end to the main door at the west.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
"The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all" (but in French, of course).

What books did the congregation use during the service?
None at all, but a very nice old lady gave me her own hymn sheet when I asked if one was available. The two hymns were printed on a small pink sheet, but otherwise everyone seemed to know everything by heart.

What musical instruments were played?
Organ only – a splendid instrument, featured in regular recitals during the summer. The cantor led us in all the usual sung parts of the mass as well as the hymns.

Did anything distract you?
Hmm . . . the shadowy recesses formed by the decrepit side chapels, the wildly baroque high altar, the hideous nave altar, the comings and goings of the cantor-cum-deacon, the multiplicity of ambos (at least three), the rather poor public address system which distorted Father's voice when he was preaching – all little things in themselves, really, that all combined to enhance the atmosphere in a distracting sort of way.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
A fairly standard Roman Catholic mass without an abundance of trimmings (no gospel procession, for instance, or angelus) but with plenty of incense and a sung liturgy that most people participated in. I was delighted to find that I recognised the tune used for the entrance hymn and also the Lourdes setting of the gloria. The whole service was celebrated in a matter-of-fact but reverent way, and was less unfamiliar in style than I had anticipated. The boat-boy (aged about 8) led the intercessions, and did it very well indeed – it's always good to see children taking an active part in worship.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
10 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
5 – Father spoke clearly and slowly (which was a relief to me, as my knowledge of French is not that great), with quite a few hand and arm gestures to emphasise his points. He raised his voice several times, but unfortunately the public address system and the height of the roof caused echoes.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
We were reminded of the importance of the most holy Sacrament as spiritual food for our Christian pilgrimage, just as our daily food intake is necessary for our physical life – although Father also emphatically reminded us of the problems of poverty and the increasing numbers of starving children throughout the world, and of the Church's reponsibility for helping to deal with this.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Being able to share in the eucharist in an unfamilar setting, language and denomination, and feeling that this was being done and had been done in thousands of churches all over the world down the ages.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Oh, how I do wish that Roman churches would provide a copy of the actual liturgy itself! After all, this is a cathedral in a popular holiday area, and even if the locals know the mass by heart, the rest of us might not.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
People started moving out of their pews in Father's wake as he processed out, but quite a few stood around afterwards chatting to each other or lighting candles in the chapel of Our Lady of Lourdes. I shook hands with Father, who wished me a happy Sunday. But I did not linger, as it was past the time I had agreed to meet my sister. I got the impression of a friendly core of regular worshippers, and no doubt would have fallen into conversation if I'd hung about a bit. Next time, maybe.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
None on offer, but with lots of pavement cafes a Euro's throw away, this didn't really matter!

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
5 – I'm not a Roman Catholic, but if I lived in Perpignan I would probably attend here from time to time at least.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes, without a doubt.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
Father's remark, just before the dismissal, that this was an important day for France (the referendum regarding the European Constitution was under way), and that it was our duty to vote "Non!"
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