In search of Mass in Israel

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Mass in the Holy Land is comforting to both regulars and travelers who find themselves far from home.

By Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan

You are neither here nor there
A hurry through which known
and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings
come at the car sideways
...And catch the heart off guard
and blow it open
- Seamus Heaney

We stood in front of the gate, looking at the address on the paper in my hand. It was dark, and my roommate Kalindi and I had already walked down the street twice looking for the Pontifical Biblical Institute. It was my first Sunday in Jerusalem, I was eager to attend a Mass and as luck would have it, there was an English service at the PBI, less than two miles from our apartment. For years, I had heard wonderful stories about the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome and couldn’t have been more eager to visit its branch in Israel.

On the third try, we finally noticed the number 3 etched into the wall beside a tall, narrow, metal gate. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t see it. From the outside, it looked like any other entrance on the street. In the dark, it was easy to miss the little plaque that bore the name “Pontifical Biblical Institute.”

As we pushed the narrow, heavy gate open, an impressive white stone building stood before us. Trees lined the boundary walls, and there was absolute silence within these walls. There were few lights. This building did not look like the picture I had painted in my mind of an ornate, old, warmly lit church.

A little hesitantly, we walked the perimeter of the courtyard, carefully opened the door, and walked into the little chapel on the right.

Unlike the imposing exterior of the building, the chapel inside was simple and adorned only with a large cross above the altar and a few bouquets of flowers. Having heard so much about this church, I was somewhat disappointed—there were no pews, only rows of chairs, and it was much smaller than I anticipated.

A little timidly, Kalindi and I seated ourselves near the front. But it had been a long and overwhelming week and I welcomed the silence of the empty chapel. It was nearly 7 in the evening, and I wondered whether many people would attend (there were less than 40 seats). A few people trickled in, and two young priests entered to lead the singing. When they gestured to the congregation, now about 15 people, to stand for the entrance hymn, Kalindi and I glanced at each other, expecting to see a lone priest walk in by himself.

But priest after priest after priest processed in, 13 in all.

I have always enjoyed the solemnity of Catholic masses, but there was something majestic and beautiful about 13 priests celebrating Mass together. Our hearts caught off guard, Kalindi and I now exchanged a look of wonder. This was Mass in Jerusalem.

The sermon was thoughtful, inspiring, and grounded. It didn’t matter that we were sitting on chairs rather than in pews, and that the congregation numbered as many as the priests. What mattered was that we had all gathered together to celebrate Mass, and that in doing so, we created an atmosphere conducive to prayer, reflection, and thought.

As I discovered in the weeks following this first Mass, the congregation is constantly changing—people are often in town only for a short while and so the community is varied each week. At once a familiar and strange new experience, I’ve found a community that welcomes the stranger and the traveler, new residents and old friends. There is a place for everyone at this table. I leave my worries at the narrow, heavy door, and enter.

“Why must the gate be narrow?
Because you cannot pass beyond it burdened.
To come in among these trees you must leave behind
The six days’ world, all of it, all of its plans and hopes.
You must come without weapon or tool, alone,
Expecting nothing, remembering nothing,
Into the ease of sight, the brotherhood of eye and leaf.”
- Wendell Berry


Guest Blogger Cathleen Chopra-McGowan is a Fulbright fellow in biblical studies and a recent graduate of Boston College. She will be blogging about her experience as a young adult Catholic studying in Israel for the My Generation blog. Her posts can be found at "A year in Israel."

Guest blog posts express the views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.