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)