As people who follow my blogging regularly know, my friend Jill is Catholic – so we go to services everywhere we travel. I’ve even met the former Pope (not quite a private audience of course – but still).
So we pretty much think we know how it goes – there’s a pattern to services, whether they are in Vietnam, Italy, or Spain that is very similar. We expected the same here in Korea – but we were wrong, wrong, wrong!
We ‘googled’ catholic services in Seoul – and found out that there’s actually a Cathedral – the Myeongdong Cathedral to be exact – and it’s the largest brick gothic building in Korea. You’d think finding it would be easy – but no. We walked right past it – Twice! It is surrounded on all 4 sides by other buildings – including a former hospital. To find the Cathedral, you must turn off the major street onto a side road – and keep your eyes peeled to the left. There’s a relatively narrow main entrance way – a set of stairs and a long long ramp that go from street level to the building itself.
Anyway – to find it – we had to stop people and ask directions. Good thing they were actually heading to mass. We followed them through a garage and up a twisting flight of stairs to the cathedral entrance – this was a short cut!
We entered in – and were not surprised to find ourselves in a cathedral that could have been anywhere in Europe – complete with stain glass windows and the relics of martyrs.
So where did we get confused? Well – part of the normal pattern of service is the collection of alms. Generally a lay person (or 2) takes a long handled basket, and passes it up and down the aisles, and you can put money in as you wish. But not here. We were sitting in the front row of one section, and suddenly this lovely young lady wearing a white drap over her head is gesturing at us to get up. We can’t figure out why. Jill thinks it might be time for communion, so she gets up and exits the row. The gal gestures at Jill to put her hand in a basket – which Jill does thinking it’s communion – and it is at that moment that Jill realizes they are collecting alms – you don’t take out – you put in!
Meanwhile – our entire row is on hold – waiting for Jill and I to move. It turns out that unlike every other church we’ve ever been in – here in Korea, the congregation raises – row by row, files up to the front, deposits their ‘alms’, and then returns to their seats. Highly organized – how Korean! Once you know what to do – you can follow – and had we been anywhere but in the front row – we’d have been ok. Live and learn.
When it finally time for Communion, we aren’t nearly as surprised that it too is highly organized. A priest goes row by row, gesturing people to raise and file out to join the queue. The only problem – I’m not taking communion. So everyone in my row – and both of the rows in the side sections must stumble past me to get in line. How embarrassing.
But the singing is lovely – there is a full choir, over 10 priests, layman and altar boys, a magniciant organ, plus a string section. The music is lovely, the surrounding very peaceful, and altogether a neat experience.
On the way out – one of ladies of the parish comes over to wish us well – and to let us know that there is an English service at 9;00 am on Sunday. We thank her kindly and go on our way. If we’re here next week we’ll do the Korean mass again – only this time – we’ll be better prepared.