It has been slightly more than two weeks since I arrived in Kofu, and I have attended three masses. The first was, amusingly, in Spanish on Palm Sunday. It lasted two hours long, and I understood perhaps a third to half of what was said, and most of the actions (my Spanish heritage and early upbringing gave me some help, the rest was filled in by a lifetime of attendance at Catholic liturgies). Instead of a homily, the “Way of the Cross for Migrants” was prayed. This accounted for the extra hour, as a song was interspersed throughout the stations (much as in other places a verse from the Stabat Mater is sung). Unlike the chanted Stabat Mater, we sang a single verse in Spanish to a guitar accompaniment. It was “¡Bendito el que viene en nombre del Señor!” – “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

I was a little surprised at how casual things got between “phases” of the mass. Just before the Via Crucis, the good and friendly priest (who had dutifully covered his Roman Collar with an amice under his alb) called out to the congregation for each of the “station readers”. His was a booming voice, and I felt like for a time mass had been suspended and instead this was a performance rehearsal. People were chatting and arguing over how their sons couldn’t read a station because they only spoke Japanese, could someone else please take it? I had gladly taken a seat by the wall, and the people around me understood that while I could understand some of their Spanish, and read well enough to sing the responses (always accompanied by the guitar, how very Iberian) I couldn’t possibly be expected to read a passage.

I realised after a couple of stations that though nobody was genuflecting, we were indeed praying “We adore you oh Christ…” – I think it’s simply because the instruction had not been printed in the book, and the pews are very closely spaced. Despite my girth I genuflected for each station, though this was only possible because I had room to twist. After each reading, a prayer was offered for a particular kind of downtrodden immigrant suffering discrimination. Though I could tell even through the Spanish that these prayers were particularly squishy, the message has a raw relevance to foreigners in Japan. Despite its near perfect image for hospitality and generosity on the international stage, Japan is thoroughly notorious for blatant discrimination against and abuse of foreigners in their lands. I realised during these prayers that my material and bodily welfare over the next year depends in a very direct sense upon the Grace of God, because in general the corporate attitude towards foreigners in Japan is one of callous indifference.

Finally the stations ended, and the mass resumed. There was a change – Father was still wearing his alb and stole as before, still standing behind the altar like a game show host would stand behind a podium, but the chatter died down. The commentator (who had been giving a stream of directions from his lectern on the cramped sanctuary) stepped out of the way, and the sacred vessels were placed on the altar for Father to prepare.

The silence during the Eucharistic Prayer was a pleasant change. The reverence given to the words of consecration could be tasted, as more still seen in the line for communion. There was a single queue, down the single aisle of the church. Father gave communion to each of the faithful, first blessing the catechumens. There was a single extraordinary minister bearing the chalice (at which, sadly, much self-intinction was witnessed). However, Father raised absolutely no objection when I asked him to intinct the Sacred Species for me. I suppose the others who may have been watching wondered what was going on, but all I noticed as I returned to my place was a church full of people praying after Holy Communion. The Liturgy of the Notices followed, when Father individually welcomed each of the newcomers (mistaking me for a Dominican Priest at first, but quickly correcting himself and telling everyone that I was a “treso” or something). After some applause and reminders of the Holy Week services, the Mass ended and everyone genuflected, finished singing “bendito” and chatted their way out of the church.

I have to admit that I was so glad to have not only found a Catholic Church in Japan, but found one with beautiful statuary, a properly ordered sanctuary, and a full congregation; that I chanted a full Te Deum and Benedicite as my thanksgiving. I was of course quizzed on this after mass by Father, who thought that perhaps I was under obligation.

In all, my first experience was one I hardly think will be matched by others in a hurry. Spanish Mass in Japan? Two hours long, in the ordinary form? Via crucis instead of a homily, but priest without even a chasuble? Good luck. I’ll post about the other two masses soon (Holy Thursday and the Great Vigil) – as well as some photos of the church, when I get the time and permission to conduct a full survey.