Saturday, October 20, 2007

Praying at Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral

About 7% of the Vietnamese population are officially registered as Catholics. While Catholicism and other religions are strictly controlled by the central government, Catholicism is certainly the most obvious influence on Vietnamese religious life after Buddhism. Churches, while nowhere near as plentiful as in Madagascar, sprout from surprising places in a fairly large number of communities. Some were originally built for "the French and holiday makers," but today you would be hard-pressed to find a church that caters only to foreigners or, indeed, even celebrates Mass in a language other than Vietnamese.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi is the largest congregation in Hanoi and the north of Vietnam. The church itself stands in a largish courtyard at the T intersection of a couple of well-appointed streets full of up-scale boutiques, delis and cafés deep in the city's Old Quarter. The building towers over the surrounding one-story shops and looms mysteriously through the trees until you break out into the shadow of the stark grey gothic towers. After the colors, bustling sounds and woody environs of the tourist-filled streets of the Old Quarter, the Cathedral itself stands as an almost ghostly anomaly, like black-and-white scene lost and wandering through a modern-day action-packed film.

Before Mass time the courtyard in front of the church is packed with a procession of motorbikes, bicycle cabs and old women waiting at the riot fencing that prevents the crowds from climbing the long flight of steps to the two-story wooden doors between Mass times. At precisely 15 minutes before the hour of Mass, the wood doors are opened and the moveable gates unlocked to allow the masses inwards. First in are the few beggars the city of Hanoi hosts, who sit on the steps begging alms from the church goers. Next are the members of the Rosary society, who will race their way through a Rosary in the few minutes allotted to them before the clockwork priests begin their inward march. Mixed in the rest are the other faithful and a fair number of tourists, who, not seeing the doors open at any other time boldly take the opportunity to scuttle about looking at the architecture and icons – slightly disappointing I am sure after a general anticipation that is bound to build up if one is kept away for so long.

The inside of the church is frankly reminiscent of European-style church buildings with impossibly tall white columns meet in arches in a Mary's-robe blue sky-ceiling painted above. The impression is of well-ordered clouds in a peaceful firmament, supported below by a lively gold-gilt altarpiece backdrop. The impression is not nearly so foreign as in Thailand where gaudy Buddhist traditions and unabashedly mixed into all church decorations until the outward appearance of the religions melts together into an indistinguishable mix. Instead, it resembles closely the St. Joseph's of my childhood in my grandparent's home in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Tall red-and-gold columns housing a few statues of Saints rise to meet giant stained-glass windows. To ensure full appreciation of the craftsmanship of the windows during evening services, the tall peaked windows are lined with fluorescent bulbs lit with a flick of a switch about 5 minutes before Mass begins. The fireworks-like appearance of the pictures in the windows as the bulbs sputter to life in a lively and random manner is one of highlights of the pre-Mass ceremony.

The other highlight, which is a strong reminder of the foreignness of the locale, is the Rosary society itself. Beginning as soon as the first leader can whisk into her seat after the doors are opened, the members take up a chant that immediately calls to mind the deeply ingrained Buddhist roots of the region, the juxtaposition of which with the generally European surroundings can only be described as "exotic." The droning monotone continues up and even into the opening announcements made by an adjunct priest in the minutes before Mass actually gets underway.

For being a cathedral, I don't find the internal appropriations of the church to be immediately impressive. Even in size, I believe it is only about ¼ larger than my grandparents' church, and the new St. Peter's church at full capacity probably seats more (although this church also utilizes the miniature stools so favored by street-food vendors and the large area on top of the steps outside the doors to accommodate overflow crowds). The interior beneath the crowning blue-and-white is a flaking, faded spring-green-gone-puce color, and most of the tiles on the floor are chipped and scraped. There really is little to make you rejoice in the beauty and majesty of the building, and like many Asian buildings, it is generally overstuffed with miss-matched pictures, statues and icons.

Yet, some great care has been taken to the technological needs of the building. Lighting, while almost entirely done in the ubiquitous fluorescent strip-bulbs, is hung so unobtrusively as to cast as warm a glow as fluorescent lighting is capable of. Fans are located on each angle of the mighty columns and the controls are available to the worshipers themselves to adjust to maximum comfort. The pews are basic utilitarian as are found widely in developing countries and more generally outside of the US (where seats are to be found at all), but the sound system is probably the most remarkable feature in the whole building. With a surprising no-costs-are-too-much attitude, somebody wisely chose to invest in a Bose sound system, and then found a true professional to complete the installation. The result is an almost miraculous clarity of sound throughout the entire interior. I found myself sitting directly beneath one speaker but quickly discovered that it was no louder or more distorted than sitting at the furthest back corner of the church. Speakers are distributed evenly throughout, completely eliminating the delay that can be so deadly to a choir leading worshipers and the priest himself in signing from a choir loft. The sound is completely balanced; the priest, lector nor musicians are guilty of drowning out the rest.

The video system is also to be lauded. I discovered this when I came to a Pentecost celebration only to be completely bowled over at the immensity of the production. Needless to say, arriving 5 minutes before Mass began (and 25 minutes into pre-Mass spectacle), I and more than 150 others didn't chance a seat inside. Nothing to fear – an internally mounted camera broadcast live to an LCD project set up to project onto a large screen outside on the steps. The sound system also has external components, making it just as easy to see and hear as if we'd been sitting in the front row. Possibly better than three quarters of those crammed inside (and with better air, despite all the fans, I am sure).

The choir is an odd assortment of chanters and melodious singers. The pianists and organists have always been top notch when I was there (refreshingly not surprising in a city that appreciates music and culture). The music is nothing familiar, and incorporates an almost chant-like drone into most of the parts, giving the experience another shot of exoticism.

The service itself runs almost militantly like clockwork, with the constant quarter-hour chiming from the towering steeples above to remind us exactly what point we should be at. The procession is accompanied by the chiming of the hour, readings, homily and prayers are spoken with a clarity that scoffs at the need for a superb sound system, and the sending forth and closing song are chanted above the tolling of one hour more. There is a definite flow in which all celebrants are expected to participate fully.

The exodus from the church at the end of service is almost another shock of time-and-place, whether day or night. The crowds bottle neck at the colossal double doors and swarm around the two tiny holy water fonts almost hidden behind them on the far edges of the vestibule. Then you are disgorged onto blanketing humidity on the top steps, leaving you to feel like a rock star on stage with the adoring crowds of taxis, motorbikes and pedi-cabs, Hanoi's begging poor, people waiting to retrieve worshiping relatives, popcorn and streetfood vendors, helium balloon sellers, curious tourists and other opportunists staring up at you and your fellow humanity so recently sanctified.

As you make your way down and out through the protective fencing, you know you are leaving a place of (only occasional) sanctuary, and reentering the mad world of Old Quarter Hanoi.


Anonymous said...

Good words.

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