I don’t know what, if anything, I was expecting from our visit to this Catholic Church. Because of my Episcopal upbringing, the liturgy of the Mass was familiar and comfortable for me. This was not the case for Scott. He was raised in the Church of Christ. Hymns, yes. Kneeling, standing, sitting and formal liturgy, no.
After leaving Mass he got in the car and laughed and said something like: “I must have had a big ‘P’ on my forehead (P for Protestant). When I was supposed to sit, I stood. When I was supposed to stand I should have been kneeling.”
I, on the other hand, got in the car and started to cry. Scott looked at me and said, “Well this is a switch. You would have thought I’d be the one crying, you’re supposed to be used to that kind of worship.” Through my tears I said, “We don’t belong anywhere. We can’t go back to the Protestant Churches we know. And we certainly don’t belong here.”
I guess I’d had some expectations of this Mass after all. After years of attending Protestant churches where great emphasis was placed on community and fellowship I have to say that my experience at that Catholic Church was a disappointment and a culture shock. The people did not seem warm and welcoming. This was not my definition of community and fellowship.
I don’t think my experience is uncommon for many non-Catholics who visit a Catholic parish –especially for those who come from or have experienced some of the non-denominational Protestant traditions that pride themselves on creating a warm, friendly and ”non-threatening” environment. When a non-Catholic comes with some level of expectation for that same experience they are often disappointed like I was. It’s both a “cultural” difference as well as theological. The theological difference has much to do why some Protestants attend church versus why Catholics go to Mass.
Later I would come to understand these differences. But, for the time being it was easy to use this experience as one more strike against the Catholic Church in my heart. [If I’m honest I would say that even today I sometimes struggle with this cultural difference. The truth is some of us Catholics could learn a few things from Protestant congregations about the joy of fellowship with other believers and helping to welcome people into the community.]
Of course, my experience at this Mass wasn’t enhanced by the fact that we sat in the back of the church along with those parishioners who conveniently left after receiving the Eucharist. I looked around after Communion and the last three rows of pews were empty. It was like witnessing a dinner party where the guests come in, eat and then leave without taking time to thank the host. I remember thinking, where is the devotion? Of course I didn’t take time to notice those who were focused on giving thanks and worshipping the Lord. No, in my heart this apparent lack of devotion of a few was attributed to the Catholic Church as a whole. Yet another strike.
Given this experience you’ll be surprised to learn we actually came back to that Catholic Church the next week. Some might wonder why. There were a few reasons.
1) Despite my observations we believed it was right for us as a family to be in church worshipping with other believers together on Sunday morning. And we had no other place to go.
2) We reasoned that we’d visited many Protestant churches, why not visit the Catholic Church for a while?
3) And this was the most important reason: These disappointments were based on the behavior of people, not on theology or truth.
Scott was quick to remind me our journey was about finding truth. It was about being sure of what we believed and what the church we were attending believed. It was about authority when it comes to the interpretation of scripture and doctrine.
He also reminded me of what this wasn’t about. It was not about the pastor, his style of teaching and whether it “fed” us. It was not about the music and whether it suited our personal preference. It wasn’t about having good youth programs for our kids as they grew up. It wasn’t even about whether the people made us feel warm and fuzzy.
No, it wasn’t about people, programs, or our personal preferences. It was about Jesus and His doctrinal truth. The rest, as Scott put it, has its value and its place, but that place isn’t supposed to be first. And as he put it, we’d never be able to objectively examine the teachings of the Catholic Church or any other church if we’re putting these other things first. People, programs, pastors and personal preferences are subjective and change — truth is obective and does not change.
That whole thing about people, programs and personal preferences is big for me. It was so easy to get my eyes off of Jesus and the truth and focus on what made me comfortable. But I had to admit that no where in scripture did I see Jesus emphasizing what is “comfortable” and what we prefer. Instead my Jesus calls us to a radical conversion of the heart. He told the rich young man to sell everything (Matt. 19:21). He tells us to pick up our cross (Luke 9:23). After his discourse about his flesh being real food and his blood being real drink some of his followers said “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” They left him, and Jesus let them go. He didn’t follow after them and try to make his teaching “easy” for them to accept and more to their liking (John 6:53-64).
Jesus calls us to exchange our “worldview” for his. And I was learning that meant being willing to let go of my personal preferences and my opinions in which I took great pride. It meant not trying to fit Him or His doctrines into my box and into my theological worldview. But instead being willing, if He asked me, to embrace even that which made me uncomfortable (especially that which made my flesh uncomfortable). So, after my childish, emotional “after mass” reaction was over I told God that I would abandon my self-interest and follow him no matter the cost or discomfort to my flesh.
We went back that parish the next week. That’s when my parents introduced us to the associate pastor, Fr. Palka. He was a young priest who was passionate about his faith and had a gift for teaching. It’s no coincidence that we met Fr. Palka. Just when we were beginning to objectively examine the Catholic faith and compare it to other Protestant faiths, Fr. Palka was teaching a class on the Catechism of the Catholic Church called, We Believe.
If you’d told me three months prior that I would attend a class at the Catholic Church I’d have laughed. But lots of things had changed in the last three months. We had changed. We were on a different road in our faith journey with Jesus. And only He knew where it would lead us.