Corpus Christi in Vienna

A procession is a holy movement of those truly united. It is a gentle stream of peaceful majesty, not a procession of fists clenched in bitterness, but of hands folded in gentleness. It is a procession which threatens no one, excludes no one, and whose blessing even falls on those who stand astonished at its edge and who look on, comprehending nothing. It is a movement which the holy One, the eternal One supports with his presence; he gives peace to the movement and he gives unity to those taking part in it. The Lord of history and of this holy exodus from exile towards the eternal homeland himself accompanies the exodus.
Karl Rahner, SJ (NB that I never quote Rahner, but this is a good quote!)

News reports tell us that Austrians are leaving the Catholic Church in droves. That may be the case, but they sure do still believe in not working on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation. On this Corpus Christi THURSDAY (ahem) I was annoyed not to find a bus or taxi from my little apartment in the wine tasting village of Grinzing to get to the UBahn for the 8.30am Pontifical Mass at the Stefansdom. I did finally get there, and could not find anywhere to have my obligatory Kleiner Brauner to pump some caffeine in my system for what promised to be one of those Endurance Liturgies that no suburban American Catholic could ever cope with. Thank God for American economic imperialism, as I thanked God the only time in my life for McDonalds and hot coffee!

I entered the Sacristy of the Cathedral ahead of time and it was already abuzz with activity for the Mass and Procession. I checked with the Ceremoniarius, the Cathedral’s Master of Ceremonies, if I could concelebrate the Mass and process, and I was graciously attended to by one of the sacristans, who vested me, and about 25 other priests, in some of the most beautiful 17th century French giardinaje style vestments I have ever seen.

The Nuncio to Vienna entered and warmly greeted everyone in the sacristy with a handshake, just as every other person who entered the sacristy did. Not long thereafter, Christoph Cardinal Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, in his choir dress and biretta, entered and made the rounds of everyone in the sacristy. I was delighted to have a brief conversation with him, and to receive his encouragement for my doctoral studies, which he repeated again after the Mass. His quiet but warm demeanor somehow all of its own corralled the mass of people in the sacristy, and the bell rang for Mass to begin.

The Pontifical Mass was sung very well by the Cardinal, the prayers all being in German. But the Ordinary of the Mass was Mozart’s Spaurmesse, and the famous Cathedral Choir and Orchestra did justice to Vienna’s favourite musician. For those who are unfamiliar with how a Viennese orchestral Mass works with a sung Ordinary Form Mass, I will describe the local custom.
The Kyrie is sung as the Penitential Rite itself, with everyone sitting down after the first bar. After the Kyrie, all rise and the Celebrant sings the Misereatur and then intones the Gloria. After the first bar of the Gloria, everyone sits and listens to the Gloria, and then all rise for the Collect. For the Creed, all stand after the Homily as the Celebrant intones it, and then sit after the first bar. Everyone bows in their seats at the et incarnatus est. After the Preface, the Sanctus begins, and all continue to stand. After the Sanctus, the congregation stands, kneels or sits (!) as they wish. The Eucharistic Prayer begins as normal, and the Memorial Acclamation is sung. Then, the Choir begins the Benedictus. After the conclusion of the Benedictus, the Celebrant continues the Eucharistic Prayer as normal. After the Sign of Peace, at a Pontifical Mass, the Choir sings the Agnus Dei in its usual place; but at other Masses, the Celebrant skips the Agnus Dei, which is sung at the beginning of the distribution of Holy Communion.

That is how the Ordinary is handled at the Cathedral. For some of the other music, they do something which many would balk at. The Entrance Procession and Incensation is accompanied by organ. Then, when the Celebrant reaches the Chair, a vernacular hymn is sung. A hymn is sung at the usual place of the Offertory. And after the Sacrament is returned to the tabernacle in a side altar and the Celebrant reaches his chair, a vernacular Communion hymn is sung. And the usual Recessional Hymn is sung as per usual. I have heard on occasion parts of the Latin Gregorian Propers sung, but never all of them, and never very often. While some liturgists may balk that music must accompany a liturgical action and never stand alone by itself (at least for the Introit and Communion), this practice does mean that everyone calmly sings together the hymns without having to worry about watching or doing something else. And guess what, they sing ALL THE VERSES!

There are a couple of interesting architectural things to notice. The Lucite chair for the Cardinal and the small, almost square, marble freestanding altar on their respective footpaces are placed within the Choir Aisle. The High Altar, upon which the Sacrament is not reserved, has become a very nice stand for (real) candles (that are lit all day long everyday) and flowers. The placement of the cathedra and freestanding altar makes for some very awkward motions during a liturgy which otherwise is very well executed. I would be interested to see where the Throne was placed before, and how the Stefansdom Reform of the Reform liturgy would look and sound like if the Cathedra were elsewhere and the High Altar used for the celebration of Mass.

The Procession began after the Closing Prayer after a rather long explanation of the order of procession and the wait for the various groups to take their places in the nave. The usual men and women religious, confraternities and papal knights and dames were in attendance. But there was another addition that was typically Austrian which I found quite delightful.
In the United States, when we think of fraternities, we usually think of Animal House, hazing and binge drinking. College fraternities in Austria may do all that too, but they were all out in force for Corpus Christi. Each fraternity has a specific uniform with a military style formal Mess jacket (gold buillion embroidery, epaulets, and brass buttons), trousers tucked into high boots, and what can best be described as a pillbox hat worn on the side of the head with a chin strap. They all carry swords and other fine pieces of weaponry. And they all have their place in the Procession. Also in the Procession were representatives from the secular University of Vienna, with their gowns and oversized velvet hats.

The Cardinal took up the small monstrance, which was decorated with a crown of baby’s breath, and the Procession began as the impressive bells of the Cathedral rang full peal and the organ began the hymn we all know as “Praise to the LORD, the Almighty.”

The Procession made its way through the streets of Vienna, as it has every year for centuries. I thought of how many Corpus Christi Processions this city has seen. Celebrating the feast in the glories of the late Middle Ages, as Protestants threatened to tear the city apart, as Turks besieged the gates, as Maria Theresa reigned in Enlightened splendor, as the Nazis made the town their own, and now, as secularism threatens to break a final murderous wave over a once Christian Europe. How many more Processions will there be in the future?

But suffice it to say, this Procession was very much like every other Procession in the past. It certainly was not like last year’s Procession in the Austrian town of Klagenfurt when a Pita Bread (Host?) on a pike was processed through the streets in a Burlesque version of a Corpus Christi Procession. There might have been more German in 2011 then there would have been in 1911, with the Emperor Blessed Karl von Habsburg was in attendance, or in 1511, before the Reformation threatened to destroy the German speaking world’s Eucharistic devotion. But it was a Procession like any other. Three altars, each magnificently decorated, with a sung Gospel at each; band music, the Rosary, Litanies and hymns between each station. There were only two additions which Vienna’s forebears might not have seen before, but which certainly could be seen in a hermeneutic of continuity with the true spirit of Vatican II: sung Intercessions, and a homily given by the Cardinal at each Station.

But there were also two other additions which somehow I think that Sissy, Freud, Hitler, and a lot of other people who passed through the Imperial Capital might not have ever thought to see. The first was that many of the servers, adults and children, were female (although interestingly enough, the Readings at Mass were proclaimed by seminarians). The other was the inclusion within the Procession of something I am at a loss to describe. A dapperly dressed young man held a large flag with the word, “Frauen”, Women, written on it. Next to him was a similarly well-habille young woman with a sign, with a cartoon of an androgynous figure in a cassock kicking off one of his/her/its bedslippers and pointing to a bed with the word “Frei”, Free, written on it. At first, I thought it was a silent protest saying the Church needs to keep its nose out of women’s bedrooms. But they joined the Procession with everyone else. It was one of those “huh?” moments, and if any of our readers can enlighten me as to what that was all about, I would like to know.

A more positive and less disturbing image was one of evangelization. A group of sisters dressed in long denim jumpers with a white veil, sandals, and wooden crosses hung from their necks on a string, (they had to be French, only the French come up with that kind of combo), were carrying baskets of rose petals. Every so often, they would go up to a little girl on the side of the street and ask them if they would like to throw flowers as Jesus passed by. I am not sure if any of those little girls had any idea what was going on, but I am also sure by the smiles of the girls and their families that this quiet little initiative of the good sisters was appreciated by lots of people on the margins of Christian practice, and Jesus as well!

This was a procession which was well-organized, took its time, and was prayerful. Today I prayed. And my faith was strengthened because the Body of Christ, the Church, had gathered to worship the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. And to do so among the splendor of an ancient tradition, the music of Mozart, and the quiet humble example of the Cardinal was a wonderful way to spend Corpus Christi.