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2446: St Michael the Archangel, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan
St Michael the Archangel, Bishkek
Mystery Worshipper: Kenelm.
The church: St Michael the Archangel, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Denomination: Roman Catholic, Apostolic District of Kyrgyzstan. The apostolic district and parish are served by priests of the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as Jesuits.
The building: The church is a small white building in a dusty back street about 10 minutes' drive from central Bishkek. From the outside, it resembles a house with a small bell tower added on, while the interior is plain with wooden pews and a first floor gallery around three sides of the room. It would feel small for any Catholic church in the UK, but represents the seat of Catholicism for the whole of Kyrgyzstan.
The church: Islam is the most prevalent faith in Kyrgyzstan, although there has been a Christian presence here since the Middle Ages, primarily Russian and Ukranian Orthodox but also Lutheran and Anabaptist as well as Roman Catholic. The congregation at St Michael's are made up of a mix of Catholic ex-pats, Bishkek residents of Polish and German extraction, and a handful of Kyrgyz converts. The Jesuits travel long distances to say occasional masses in other towns, and there is another parish in the south of the country. The church has close links with Catholics in neighboring Central Asian republics.
The neighbourhood: Kyrgyzstan is one of several former Soviet republics that appeared suddenly on the world maps in 1991 as independent countries. Bishkek is the capital and the largest city of Kyrgyzstan. It's a city of contrasts, with wide tree-lined boulevards and buildings with marble facades on the one hand, and drab Soviet-style apartment complexes on the other. Leafy parks, bazaars and a few museums, coupled with a nightlife that many young tourists find delightful, make it an interesting and relatively safe place to visit. There is an extensive fleet of minibuses that travel to all parts of the city, as well as more traditional bus and trolleybus routes. The church is surrounded by low-rise detached houses in small, scruffy gardens. There are a few grocery shops nearby, and the Bayar bazaar is a short stroll away. After mass I wandered there to find everything from fruits and vegetables to live sheep being sold.
The cast: The celebrant and preacher was the Most Revd Nikolaus Messmer, S.J., Apostolic Administrator of Kyrgyzstan. Members of the congregation participated, reading the lessons and the bidding prayers.
The date & time: 23 September 2012, 11.00am.

What was the name of the service?
Mass (or strictly speaking Воскресное богослужение, as the service was in Russian).

How full was the building?
Full on the ground floor, although it was difficult to see how many were seated in the gallery. I would estimate 50 people there in total.

Did anyone welcome you personally?
I arrived midway through the first reading, having woken up late after arriving on a night flight, so I scuffled in and took a seat at the back. One or two parishioners nodded a silent greeting.

Was your pew comfortable?
I was sat on a plain wooden chair at the back. It was perfectly adequate and I think even had a thin cushion.

How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Instead of soaking up the pre-service atmosphere, I was hurtling through Bishkek's back streets in the back of a bashed up Lada making polite conversation to the taxi driver in my best Russian.

What were the exact opening words of the service?
Sadly I was not there to find out, but I would guess they were "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" in Russian, as the rest of the service followed the rubric fairly closely.

What books did the congregation use during the service?
A black hardback hymn book containing Russian hymns and possibly the mass text, although I didn't get my hands on a copy. Some parishioners had brought their own missals/prayer books along.

What musical instruments were played?
A solitary acoustic guitar, played competently by an invisible parishioner seated in the gallery.

Did anything distract you?
The congregation were such an odd mix of people that I kept glancing round and wondering where they were all from and how they came to be Catholic. Also several people arrived even later than I, causing a slight disturbance, but I'm not really in a position to complain about that.

Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was a funny mixture. The intimate setting and guitar gave the mass a low-key feeling. In contrast, the bishop, although essentially a mere parish priest, was vested in full episcopal regalia and gave blessings as he processed out down the very short aisle. This is something you'd more expect to see in a large cathedral.

Exactly how long was the sermon?
7 minutes.

On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
7 – Bishop Messmer spoke clearly and concisely and only referred to his notes occasionally. He preached from behind the lectern, holding his crozier and wearing his mitre in the formal way.

In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
My limited Russian meant I didn't understand the whole sermon, but he focused on the gospel passage (Mark 9:30-37 – the first must be last), exhorting the faithful to strive to be more like Jesus in their daily lives, being kind and gentle, and living as a witness to the gospel.

Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The knowledge that, even in this remote corner of the world, in a secular city, a group of people had gathered to worship and express their Christian faith, which was clearly strong. There were many signs of devotion.

And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
Not knowing any of the Russian responses to say during the mass! I mumbled them quietly in English but would have loved to have had a copy of the mass text.

What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Sadly, nothing at all. The bishop disappeared into the building next door (presumably the sacristy or his house). One member of the congregation led the Angelus after mass, for which everybody stayed. But after that, everyone seemed in a hurry to leave. I had hoped someone might offer me a lift back to town in their smart 4x4, but they didn't, so I wandered round the area and finally hopped on a bus back to town.

How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There was none that I could find.

How would you feel about making this church your regular (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
7 – If I lived in Bishkek then I would have to, as it's the only Catholic church there! I'd like to go to the English mass, but at 9.00am it was just too early after a 4.00am arrival. I will certainly return when I next come to Bishkek.

Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Very much so, and the importance of Catholic identity is heightened in a place where there are so few of us.

What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time?
The episcopal blessings given by Bishop Messmer as he left the church.
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