“Olive Sunday” in the Land of Palm Trees: Catholic Life in Casablanca

As we have mentioned in previous posts, Morocco is a Muslim country that lets people practice other religions (as long as they do not proselytize).  Here in Casablanca we have several weekly Catholic Mass options in French, English, Spanish, and Italian at various churches, though so far we have hit only the French Mass and English Mass.  Today we prepare for this evening’s Good Friday service and Sunday’s celebration of Easter, seemingly a good time to share a bit about last Sunday’s start of Holy Week on Palm Sunday
…Or, rather, as it turned out:  Olive Sunday.
While last Sunday the remainder of the Roman Catholic world, and much of the the rest of Christendom, blessed and distributed palm branches before reading the Gospel account of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem before his arrest and crucifixion, at Casablanca’s Eglise Notre Dame de Lourdes we had the blessing and distribution of olive branches instead of palm fronds.  This could make sense, given the prevalence of olive trees in this Mediterranean country; however, palm trees appear just as ubiquitously here as olive trees, so we have no shortage of them that mandates a substitution of olive branches for palm fronds.  It strikes us as just one more curiosity, if not irony, that makes living here so interesting.
Our church options themselves fit among these curiosities.  The weekly English Mass takes place at the French-named Christ Roi church.  Of course, this translates to Christ the King, but the name is the name.  At Christ Roi, really a big room off a courtyard and up some stairs in a larger building downtown, a French priest leads the English Mass with a heavy accent for a congregation of mostly Filipino parishioners.  We do not know if they shared in Olive Sunday, for our church home has become Notre Dame, a hegemonic 1950s construction of heavy concrete and stained glass that sits on a busy corner also downtown not too far from Christ RoiNotre Dame, a much larger parish, appears also to have a French Pastor, though he presides comfortably in French instead of in accented English, and often the other non-French clergy preside in French in the celebration of Mass.  These other clergy, like over 90 percent of the congregation, hail not from France or Morocco, but from French-speaking sub-Saharan African countries.  The very sub-Saharan African feel in the middle of Mediterranean Morocco not only enriches the cosmopolitan experience, but also normally makes for quite a lively culture for American and European expats that pop in for Mass. Double the intensity of that for Olive Sunday, with an all-out cavalcade of singing in harmonic cacophony and intensely energetic olive branch waving while processing into the church building from the blessing of the pal…olive branches…in a grotto on the far side of the fenced church compound.  Once inside, the broadly-waving olive branches and spirited music in French, Latin, and languages from various sub-Saharan counties continues to belie the American notions that Catholics must sit stoically during Mass and – of course – that Catholics cannot sing.  After 2 ½ hours of celebration, at the end of Olive Sunday Mass, like with many other Sundays, a crowd gathered around the choir with phones out to shoot videos of their closing music.
This summer we plan to spend a month of family time studying French through an immersion program.  Until then, we have the very Catholic benefit of knowing when to stand, when to sit, when to say, “Amen” or “And with your spirit” or other things Catholics say in their worldly vernaculars, and try to pick out familiar words and phrases in prayers and homilies as we go along.  Meanwhile, the music continues to draw us in and suits our purpose abridged from St. Augustine that one who sings prays twice.
We cannot wait for what the lively Easter celebration will bring…But, then, as happens during the Triduum, we will have to wait from today until then.
On your mark…get set…here we go!

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