When I’m traveling, I spend a lot of time exploring the local culture and history of the places I visit. So, naturally, those are the things I usually write about.
Another big part of my travels, though, is finding a Catholic church to attend Mass each Sunday. In some places, this is easy; in others, not so much. But, I find it interesting to see how the Catholic communities in other countries worship, particularly in countries where Catholicism is not widespread. Finding and attending Mass usually provides a unique cultural experience, and sometimes can turn into a mini adventure of its own.
Over the past several months, I have visited dozens of Catholic churches all over Southeast Asia, India, and Europe, and I want to share some of those experiences. So here they are, in photos!
Singapore – Church of Saints Peter and Paul
Upon arriving in Singapore, one of the first places I went while struggling to stay awake through a 13-hour jetlag was Church of Saints Peter and Paul. The church was filled with a lively and active congregation, and the choir was impressive. So far, everything was familiar. However, when I reached out to shake hands with the people around me as a sign of peace, I was met with a bow instead! In fact, in all of the churches I attended in Southeast Asia and India, the custom is to put your hands together in prayer-fashion and bow your head slightly, instead of shaking hands.
Pondicherry, India – The Sacred Heart Basilica
My online research in the town of Mahaballipuram on the southeast coast of India yielded a Sunday morning Mass in a beautiful red Gothic cathedral. What did I find when I arrived at the address? An empty lot with a few chairs set up under a tent! A small sign on the fence indicated that a Mass had taken place a few hours earlier in the lot. Bummer.
All hope was not lost, though – my plan was to move on to Pondicherry that afternoon, so I got on the next bus out of Mahaballipuram and did some more online searching. It turns out that Pondicherry, being a former French colony, is filled with churches, one of which had an evening Mass. I arrived in town, dropped my bag off at the hostel, and showed up at the Sacred Heart Basilica. And there it was: the beautiful cathedral I had been looking for in Mahaballipuram!
Jaipur, India – St. Xavier’s Church
The Easter Vigil at St. Xavier’s Church in Jaipur, India ended at 1:30 AM and was followed by a nice reception with tea and cookies. When I was ready to go back to the hostel to get some sleep, I hailed an Uber, which showed up after a few minutes. I got in, and the driver promptly told me to get out – the Uber and tuk-tuk drivers were on strike today, he said! Confused about why he had even bothered to show up if he was on strike, I walked back into the church courtyard to figure out a way to get home.
I found another group of people in the same situation, trying repeatedly to hail another Uber. They were headed in the same direction as me, so we joined forces, and when they managed to get another driver to show up, we all got in. This driver had no grievances and just wanted to continue working through the strike, so he drove us toward our destinations.
Halfway through the ride, though, we were cornered by three other Uber cars in an intersection – just like in the movies at the end of a dramatic car chase! The drivers surrounded us and harassed our driver until he managed to back the car out and escape.
In the end, I made it back to the hostel safely. I wasn’t feeling well the next morning and spent a relaxed Easter Sunday without venturing out too far. By Monday morning, I was bedridden, which was just as well – the strike had escalated to a deadly riot in the streets.
Battambang, Cambodia – Our Lady of the Assumption Parish
At Our Lady of the Assumption Parish in the provincial city of Battambang, Cambodia, there are no pews. Instead, everyone leaves their shoes on racks outside the doors, and sits on bamboo mats on the floor. In Southeast Asia, it is common to remove your shoes before entering a home, so it makes sense that in this small Cambodian community, that tradition would carry over to the local church as well.
Ayutthaya, Thailand – Saint Joseph Church
Saint Joseph Church in Ayutthaya, Thailand, was not far from where I was staying, but a river separated the church from the city center. So in order to reach the church, I had to bike for forty-five minutes in drizzly rain while wearing a poncho. When the Mass was over and I was getting situated on my bike, it was dark and the rain was beginning to pick up.
Before I left the parking lot, though, a parishioner pulled up next to me in his car to ask where I was going. He said he had a friend with a truck who could take me and my bike back to the hostel. Once he had called his friend, we took a seat under the pavilion next to the church. The man dug around in the trunk of his car and pulled out a cooler filled with corn on the cob and bottles of “corn milk” (a drink that tastes exactly like corn, but in liquid form). We had a nice conversation and a corn-themed feast while waiting for the man’s friend to come with the truck.
When my ride arrived, my new friend paid the driver in corn, gave me another bottle of corn milk to go, then packed up the cooler and went on his way. I arrived back at the hostel dry, fed, and impressed by the friendliness and generosity of the people of this parish.