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Monday, April 19, 2004

WHERE TWO OR MORE ARE GATHERED...

"Thought you might find this newsworthy," someone named Etain Peregrine tells me yesterday, by Instant Message. "There's an 'authentic Catholic mass' happening right now, Sunday morning, on Second Life."

It's about 11:30AM, and though I don't often go in-world on the weekend-- or, to be frank, go to church-- I log in, and Etain teleports me into Indigo. Where there is, as it turns out, something very much like an authentic Catholic mass already in progress. A man named OmegaX Zapata is at the altar, and he's dressed in priestly garments, and he's reciting the liturgy:

"When supper was ended, he took the cup. Again he gave you thanks and praise, gave the cup to his disciples and said: 'Take this, all of you, and drink from it: this is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant...'"

Someone hands me a liturgical book, when I enter, and it's what Indigo's parishioners are using, to read along with the Mass.

Lord... remember our brothers and sisters who have gone to their rest in the hope of rising again; bring them all the departed into the light of your presence...

This actually isn't the first church in Second Life to offer services-- of course, the many weddings held in-world are usually performed in churches-- nor is it first to be used with a genuine intent to worship. A few weeks ago, for example, a church was evidently built by a Second Life resident who happened to be a retired Episcopalian priest. (His grandson, another resident, helped set up his account.) The church was removed, after another resident gave the church a negative rating, with a statement to the effect that she didn't care to see the promotion of religion, in Second Life. (Unlike previous churches, this one apparently involved a fair amount of proselytizing; for instance, one resident told me, the retired priest was handing out T-shirts that read, "Jesus had a Second Life, too.") In any case, the negative rating unleashed a flurry of controversy, in the Second Life forum, on the bounds of theology, free expression, and community. Did it constitute religion bashing? Should religious symbols and buildings enjoy some kind of social exemption from negative ratings, or should they be fair play for such criticism, just like political objects? The rhetoric raged back and forth, and somewhere in there, for whatever reason, the church was removed, and for whatever reason, the retired-clergy resident has not responded to an interview request.

Meanwhile, Rafin Grimm, the angel-winged owner of Indigo's church, is leading the faithful in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. "... thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread..." and beat for beat, nearly all of it matches the Catholic Masses I attended every Sunday, as a boy, at St. John Vianney in Kailua.

"The peace of the Lord be with you always," says Father Zapata. (And the title of his avatar designates him as "Father".) "And also with you," the churchgoers reply, and I already know the priest's next words, before they arrive on my screen. "Let us offer each other the sign of peace."

A dozen or so residents turn in their pews and give words of greeting to each other.

"Peace be with you, everybody," says Rafin, smiling. Hank Ramos offers peace to Zate Kojima, who offers peace to everyone, and to someone named wench Phaeton.

"Like all churches," my friend Fizik Baskerville whispers to me, "people are asleep in the back rows." And so they are.

"Peace be with the two away-from-keyboard bodies in the back!" Zate adds, laughing.

FlipperPA Peregrine lifts head up, laughing sheepishly. "I just got back-- peace all." Jennyfur Peregrine lifts her own head eventually, too. And the liturgy continues.

"Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us. Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed."

"Normally," Father Zapata adds, "the clergy would all line up and come to the front to recieve the body and blood of Christ." Since that's not possible here, he ends the Mass, and invites the worshipers to a brief Q&A.

"First, I would like to thank everyone for coming," says Rafin Grimm, "and I am glad to see some have some interest in the church. I would also like to say that I didn't build the church for anyone to have the Catholic religion forced on them... It was not meant to convert, just to let you see what a Mass is generally like in the Catholic church.

"A lot of my friends here are different religions," continues Grimm, "and I thought it would be cool to make a positive place for religious discussions to take place. All religious beliefs are holy in their own right. In my beliefs, whether you worship God, Jesus, Buddah, or just yourself, you are still praising God by doing those things And this church represents a way for all of us to come together and relate and educate one another. And to try and do for each other what we can."

"[I'm] not Catholic, but I love this," says Ladyvelvet Valentino. "Not Catholic, either," agrees Etain, "but it's good to see events like this."

While Omega and Grimm field a few other questions, Fizik observes to me that the idea of creating virtual churches online seems to be gaining some kind of momentum. One of them is being constructed on a server in England, according to the BBC, and according to an astounding Wired article, plans are in the works to rebuild the Temple of Jerusalem as a mid-air hologram above the hotly disputed Temple Mount, which will then be accessed by Muslims, Christians, and Jews across the world, via a MMORPG. What factors are coming together to make the notion not just feasible, but desirable, and spiritually acceptable? Questions for another time.

"If I remember right," I ask Omega and Grimm, "'Mass' is considered valid whenever two or more are gathered and the Mass is spoken correctly. So is this quite literally, in theological terms, a Mass?

"Basically, yes," Grimm answers, "Maybe more of an actual prayer service."

"I was hoping to do it like an actual mass," Omega expands, "tried not insulting anyone. I am certainly not a real minister, nor do I do this sort of thing in real life... I wanted to bring more real-world things into SL so people could experience them if they couldn't in real life." He's not even Catholic, as it happens. "I was for the first part of my life," he says, "not anymore. I simply did it because I knew how. Because it is a beautiful church, yes, I also wanted to bring people to Rafin's fabulous creation... Like I said, though, the point of the church isn't to be just Catholic. It is to bring us together in praise of God."

Omega asks for a show of hands, denomination-wise, and we count six Catholics, and five non-Catholics of unstated faiths. (In addition to someone raised Episcopalian, and another, Methodist; another resident announces himself Russian Orthodox.)

"I'm not Catholic," someone calls from the pews, "but I still believe in Christ and it's the only church service on here today, so I said what the heck, I'll go."

"You know," I muse, "if an actual priest gave this mass, I believe he could even serve eucharist, by blessing whatever bread people had at their computer." I don't make the statement flippantly. The Church makes provisions for serving Communion to those who are unable to reach a church, for reasons of emergency, sickness, or impending death. So perhaps they've even considered extreme circumstances, in which a priest could not be physically present to bless the eucharist bread, or minister it to the faithful-- to Catholics, say, trapped in a remote, physically inaccessible location. In cases like that, could a priest perfrom the blessing that effects the transubstantiation of the eucharist host, by telephone or radio? Or, as it would logically follow, by Internet? Again, questions for another time, for wiser minds.

After the question and answer period, Father Zapata encourages the faithful to make donations at the collection box, at the church entrance. There's talk of doing this next Sunday. "I also want to try and get a general service," he adds, "so we can worship in Zoey Jade's church as well, but I would need someone else to conduct that, probably."

Before he can leave the altar, a very pregnant woman named Angelic Grace approaches OmegaX Zapata.

"May I ask for a blessing for my unborn child?"

"Not if you want it to be legit," Zapata says, smiling.

"What's that suppossed to mean? You either can or can't."

"Well, I'm not a real priest... so it wouldn't hold much value."

"Well," says Angelic Grace, "it would count to me."

Zapata relents. "OK. God, bless this child and his or her parents. Guide them to a safe birth, and a happy life."

I ask Ms. Grace when the baby's due. She pivots in my direction. "Any day now, in fact. I just had the cradle built. It's gonna be a water birth-- safer. My poor feet are so swollen, they hurt."

Outside in the courtyard, OmegaX Zapata is having a cigarette.

"Maybe next time," he tells me, "I'll figure out how to do communion."

Something seems wrong with Rafin Grimm's cathedral, because the outside walls seem to fade in an out of existence. They only gain substance, when you go inside. But looking at it, from this distance, it seems ghostly and ethereal.

"Is the church meant to be translucent like this?" I ask Zapata. "Or is that my display?"

"It's solid," he says confidently. "Lots of textures to load… sometimes the [stained] glass doesn't load for me."

Zapata takes anoather drag off his cigarette.

"OK, I'm going outside to do what my avatar is doing [in here]... thanks again for coming, man."

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Such expression. :) Im really glad you were there. It was to say the least an enlightening experience, too bad Rafin took it down :(( Im in your piece? Im just a no name nobody, and you saw fit to add me... You have a great eye, but I have to say, not my best pic, LOL!

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