One Body: The Roman Catholic Church

If you want to get anywhere near understanding Christianity, you have to acknowledge the Roman Catholic Church.  You just do:  it’s the largest slice of the Christian faith on the planet, and it argues an unbroken line of papal succession back to Peter the Impetuous himself (not that claim is true, of course, but they do argue it).

Disclaimer:  I grew up with more than a foot in the Catholic Church, as my mother’s family was as Catholic as you can get.  I discovered, after his death, that my grandfather had originally wanted to be a priest.  He settled for having a seriously Catholic family of 5 kids instead, nearly all of whom now hate the Church.  So it goes.

So Catholicism is definitely in the mix of my roots, even more so than the general “out of this came most of the Protestant denominations” rootedness.  It is, for the West, the Mother Church, and it may be seriously screwed up, but it’s heritage.  Much of our understanding of Christianity is shaped by the Catholic Church—from them we get the idea of sacraments (acts that are set apart as holy), of saints (one for every day of the year and then some), of so much that shapes the worship experience of Western Christianity.  There’s also the history aspect of it:  the Catholic Church basically made Europe over the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  It was there when the governments crumbled, it kept education going when nothing else would, it pushed the kings and queens to strategic ends of its own gain.

I was at Mass this past Sunday, then, at the church where my mother and her mother have gone for years on end.  If you’ve never been to Mass, understand that it is not spontaneous.  There is a layout to the service that is far more rigid than the Protestant structures—this is what you’re hearing if you listen to a Mass at a concert or something.  It’s so incredibly prevalent in Western culture:  the structure of kyrie, gloria, credo, sanctus, benedictus, agnus dei is sort of burned into my understanding, at least.  What this means is that there aren’t really cheat sheets for the Mass.  There is a book that gives some of the pieces according to the lectionary of the Church, and since Pope Benedict changed a lot of the wording for the greetings and such there are a little placards that have things like the Creed on them.  Other than that, you’re kind of on your own—like I said, the Church was very much molded in the Middle Ages, during which time not many people could read Latin (which was the language of the Church and all “educated” folks.  Mass has been de-Latinized since Vatican II in 1959).  You went to church at least once a week (more likely more often) and simply memorized the rhythm and words.

And that kind of works.  Yes, it’s frustrating now that I’ve been apart from the Catholic Church for so long that I still say “and also with you” instead of “and with your spirit,” which instantly marks me as an outsider.  But I’ve been to a full-on Latin wedding mass before, and let me tell you, there’s a lot of power in knowing something so well you don’t actually listen to the words anymore, you just get sucked into the guts of it.

That may sound like heresy or purgatory (another Catholic invention) or outright hell to you, Reader, but don’t judge too harshly.  The Catholic Church is a rock—a very human, often blind rock—in a world that shifts constantly.  It was very odd at this particular Mass to see the piano accompanied by guitars; however hip the Church might be trying to be, that isn’t it.  Mass is grand and triumphant and the perfect place for organs and choirs and such.  (Or it’s small and intimate and lifted by the power of voice alone, which is also gorgeous.)  It’s not a swing-y praise band kind of place.

And just what is Mass, really?  The whole point of it is the Eucharist, the blessing of the bread and cup to sustain Christ’s followers until His return.  That’s it.  If you don’t have communion, you haven’t really been to Mass.

The unfortunate snag of that for a Protestant like me is that you can’t take communion (also called the host) if you’re not part of the Catholic Church.  A Catholic friend of mine in college explained this to me—see, Catholics believe in transubstantiation, which is a really poorly borrowed Latin phrase that means they believe fully (at least, doctrinally) that when the priest presents the bread and cup to God, He actually changes it into body and blood.  As in literally.  Sure, it still looks like bread and wine (they use wine, not grape juice), but it’s not.  It’s pieces of Christ.  So, according to my Catholic friend, if you don’t believe that’s happening, you really shouldn’t be taking it anyway.

I personally am not down with transubstantiation, not least because the concept of eating actual and not symbolic flesh creeps me out a bit.  And I get not trampling on someone else’s sacred moment.  But what I noticed more strongly than I ever have was that it bothered me to be cut out.  The whole thing of communion—like, Bible communion, the Last Supper communion—is that it was friends eating together and cementing themselves in the curious way that eating together does.  Communion is about, surprisingly, community.  And leading up to the Eucharist in this Mass were all of these songs about how we are one and Christ calls us all, right after a homily on Matthew 13 on how God speaks to each of us and God’s Word always has purpose and power.

Then I curled into the pew to let my family go past me to receive the bread and cup (cup is apparently optional, which also throws me; sorry ’bout ya, Jan Hus) while I tried to figure out what song we’re singing.

What?  That’s not one holy, catholic church.  That’s not one body.  That’s a way to tell non-Catholics that God doesn’t want our unclean hands on His body.  I have all the love and respect in the world for Catholicism, but somewhere along the line that became not okay for me.

Perhaps I’ve been Methodist too long.

 

There are different ways to serve but the same Lord to serve.  And there are different ways that God works through people but the same God. God works in all of us in everything we do.   (1 Cor. 12:5-6)

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8 thoughts on “One Body: The Roman Catholic Church

  1. Hopeful says:

    Mmm…it makes me think of the time we worshiped with the Orthodox Church and they went out of their way to give us bread to break the fast, though we chose not to go to the front for a blessing. Sounds like you experienced a very different feeling during this mass.

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    • I was thinking a lot about that too, Hopeful. It was a very different experience indeed, although not being able to take the cup at the Orthodox Church was also a very prominent barrier for me.

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  2. These are common Protestant reactions — I can say having been a Protestant, and having Protestant family members who react the same way. But this isn’t the Catholic reasoning at all. Catholics affirm that in Baptism, we are all baptized into the same Body of Christ, even Protestants. So we all share communion with the same Lord. But you just admit that since the schism of the Reformation, our communion with each other is not full and complete. So why should be pretend it is? Protestants place their own obstacles to that full communion — not least if which, as you say, you don’t believe what we believe about the Eucharist to begin with. Why would you want to put something in your mouth that someone said, and millions of people believed, was the actual Body and Blood of a living human? What would you be affirming, and more important, what would you be denying, by partaking of that? St. Paul tells us that he who eats of the Bread or drinks of the Cup without discerning the Body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment upon himself (1 Corinthians 11:29). As for the Cup being optional: why should the Lord be any less present in just the Host than in the Host and the Cup together? Do you think you would only be getting half of him? A desiccated Lord, or a bag of Blood without its Container?

    Thanks for the generous and entertaining post. The peace of the Lord be with you. 🙂

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    • You must admit, is what I meant to say. And why should we pretend that we are in full communion. Silly autocorrect. And noticing your name, I’m pleased to greet you from one pilgrim to another. 🙂

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    • Thanks for your comments, Joseph! And hail and well-met, fellow pilgrim.

      I do freely admit that we’re not in full communion with each other, and if communion were presented as a way to connect to the Church I would have less of a problem with the separation. As it stands, I still respect the Church’s decision to close its communion, but I believe that stands against the point you make about baptism—that it is God’s sacrament, not ours. If I believe in Christ and am in communion with Him but am still having issues with my fellow believers, then the concept I should be worrying about when approaching the altar is Mt. 5:23-24. This is a whole different side of not being in communion with God than the one presented at Mass, and frankly something I would love to hear a sermon about (from either Catholic or Protestant).

      As for Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians, I understand his reference to “discernment” being more about the spirit in which a person takes it than the thing being taken. Most translations of v. 27 include “in an unworthy manner” (NKJV, NRSV, and ESV) regarding the taking of the meal, setting up v. 29 as a way to say that the Corinthians don’t get that this isn’t just dinner but is a sacred act for which they must prepare themselves—not necessarily transformed elements. The Presence is there, just not in a physical sense.

      Jesus gave both bread and wine in the ritual. I don’t think you could halve Him if you didn’t do the wine, I just think that when He said, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” He meant “Do all of this.”

      The peace of the Lord be with your spirit! I’m delighted to hear from you about this.

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      • Thank you, fellow pilgrim. I was delighted to find your post and respond to it.

        My pastor and catechist once explained to me that the Sacraments were Sacraments of the Church — that they are offered by Christ to the Church. And it’s true that in the Catholic understanding, Protestants have separated themselves from the Church proper. The Catholic Church does recognize the validity of Protestant baptism, but most Protestants themselves deny the efficacy of the Eucharist as a Sacrament. As I often tell people, the Church’s table is open, to anyone who professes to believe what the Catholic Church believes.

        Yes, 1 Cor 11:27 does speak of taking Communion “unworthily” (ἀναξίως [anaxiōs]) and v. 28 of “examining oneself” (δοκιμαζέτω ἑαυτόν [dokimazetō heauton]) — but v. 27 speaks of “being guilty (ἔνοχος [enochos]) of the body and blood of the Lord.” That adjective ἔνοχος connotes being guilty of a crime or sin or being liable to judgment or punishment; and as it is used in the NT, it can denote the person or thing against whom the sin has been committed: So in receiving Communion unworthily, one is guilty of a sin against the Body and Blood of the Lord. “For” — v. 29 opens — “anyone who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment (κρίμα [krima]) upon himself, if he does not discern the body (διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα [diakrinōn to sōma]).” That is the correct word order in the Greek, not rendered by most translations; and κρίμα [“judgment”] and δια-κρίνων [“discerning”] come from the same root in Greek — Paul is making a play on words to emphasize the point. This verb διακρίνω is specifically one of distinction, differentiation, or recognition, to evaluate by paying careful attention. In vv. 31 and 32, that root κρίν- is used again and again: “If we judged (διεκρίνομεν [diekrinomen]) ourselves truly, we should not be judged (ἐκρινόμεθα [ekrinometha]). But when we are judged (κρινόμενοι [krinomenoi]) by the Lord, we are chastened so that we may not be condemned (κατακριθῶμεν [katakrithōmen]) along with the world.”

        I so often heard this passage glossed over as a Protestant, but it speaks of a very real and immediate judgment upon oneself — one that can have deadly physical effects — if one fails to discern the Body and Blood of the Lord or receives it unworthily, a crime against the Body and Blood itself. None of this makes any sense at all if the Body and Blood were not something really present. “This is My Body,” the Lord said, as Paul has just finished recalling. I’ve never heard a satisfactory Protestant explanation for this passage.

        God bless you, and His peace be with you!

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  3. Sheila Bigelow says:

    And we’re the richer for it!

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