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Zambia Mass both lively and sensual


There are no cars, no church parking lots that dictate the schedule of Masses, no people hurrying into church out of breath or slipping out after Communion. In Livingstone in the African country of Zambia, the people coming to Mass walk into the churchyard, sit on the concrete benches circled under the tree and chat with friends until it is time for Mass to begin. Everyone has come to join in the celebration of the liturgy.

Livingstone is a town of 100,000 people, a great many of whom are Catholic. There are six parishes there, under the guidance of Bishop Raymond Mpezele.

Each church has a slightly different liturgy. Each has a pastor from a different country. There is variety in the vestments worn by the boys serving Mass, some wearing white albs with red sashes, others the white lace-trimmed surplices of old, and still others looking traditional in tiger-patterned fabric. But the similarities overpower the differences and leave an overall impression of a moving, vibrant, dynamic event that affects all the senses.

The liturgy is celebrated in the language of the local tribe or tribes: Nyanja, Lozi, Bimba or Tonga. There are 73 languages in this country of 10 million people.

We are made to feel welcome. Folks give us the triple handshake -- hand, thumb, hand -- or a slight curtsy-kind of movement as they offer their hand. One priest spoke to us before Mass and introduced us at the end of the service, urging us to come forward and say a few words. My husband managed to oblige, but as we walked to the front I lost my composure hearing the uproarious welcome of clapping, shouting and bird-calling, high-pitched shrieks we had heard during the liturgy.

The celebration belongs to the people from the first to the last song. The music is the responsibility of the choir, a group of about 20 folks that sit together in the front seats. They are accompanied by drums of different sizes. Sometimes a type of guitar is added or a bamboo rattle. There is not a hymnbook in the place so there is no fumbling, page-turning or whispering for direction. Many people in the church join in the singing, but not all. For every song a single voice begins, all the women join in, and then the men.

The hymns are in four-part harmony, a lively repetitive chant-like melody, sometimes sounding like a folk song, which builds to a climax with the drums adding their beat. Whatever the song, it is repeated over and over often for a full 10 minutes because, as it was explained to us, the larger congregations sing it in all four languages. Somehow they know exactly when to quit, perfectly together.

There are extra musical selections in the Mass inserted before the opening hymn, between the Kyrie and Gloria and before the readings. These are necessary to the amazing processions. Those processions lead us in and they lead us out, they enliven the Gloria, they add importance to the gospel reading, they escort the book into the church, they accompany our offerings, they give a throbbing, moving sensation throughout.

Nor are these solemn processions, but rather dancing, joyous affairs that are led by several young girls all dressed alike in bright blouses and skirts, mesh knee-high socks and no shoes. Few people wear shoes during the service. They come in flip-flops, sandals or dress shoes, but kick them off as soon as they are seated. These girls set the tone, doing dance steps and arm gestures suited to the rhythm of the music. They are followed by older women, also moving two steps forward, one step back, sideways, all in time to the music. These women are all wearing chitenges (wraparound skirts that are worn over their regular clothes) printed with the same religious pattern -- a chalice, praying hands, the virgin Mary -- that distinguishes the small faith community to which they belong. The priest and several male altar servers are the last to come down the aisle in the grand entrance.

The Sunday liturgy is planned by one of the small base communities, which take turns with that duty. Parishes can boast of many of these small groups of women or men or youth or mixed members, 16 in one congregation. They meet weekly or biweekly to reflect on the scriptures, share personal problems, decide on a social action in the community at large, plan the liturgy and generally keep their parish active and alive.

Because different groups plan the liturgies, each Sunday has the benefit of that group’s talents and resources. The matrons in the group, those over 40 years old, have had many years of practice with the dancing processions, so they are the ones chosen for major roles.

One such talented woman carried the book wrapped in bright white linen on her head, dancing the length of the aisle to the altar where a smiling priest unwrapped it and lifted it off her head as she knelt down. Another brought the water and wine from the back to the front of the church, all the while doing an elaborate dance, turning and twisting, taking her time and causing the congregation to chuckle at her enthusiasm.

The whole church joins the offertory procession, almost every man and woman, bringing some monetary offering, however small, which is deposited in the box or basket at the altar. Participation in this offering outnumbers the Communion participation by about three times. The people are generous not only with their money but with their goods, which a second offertory procession brings to the altar. We take special note of this second offering since it has included -- besides the bread, produce and eggs carried forth -- a live chicken and a trussed goat that gave a bleat upon reaching the table.

In some ways, these women and mothers are more fortunate than their counterparts in the United States. Where they live and here in church they are not isolated, but closely attached to women around them. They crowd into the church benches to be close to one another, they hand their children around, they admire hairdos and dresses, they walk home down the dirt road together. In the neighborhoods, I have observed that they all share their day and its problems, knowing when there is sickness, anxiety or sadness.

Here on Sunday morning all have come together to worship, yet not only to worship but also to socialize, sing, dance, laugh and generally rise above the daily routine. Everyone gathers in the churchyard early for Mass, paying no attention to the length of the service, which always lasts two hours and sometimes three. They leave as unhurried as they came, continuing their procession down the road.

Kathleen Hage is a hospice chaplain and lives in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, April 12, 2002