My first visit to a Catholic church happened under grim circumstances.
The father of one of the students in my youth ministry passed away after a brief battle with lung cancer. Being the well-indoctrinated Protestant that I am, I had no clue of what to expect at my first visit to a Catholic mass.
Going alone was my first mistake.
As I entered the doors of the foreign sanctuary, my eyes were immediately drawn to the giant mosaic Jesus at the front of the room. Artwork like this would never be found in my own "seeker sensitive, purpose-driven" cube that my church calls an auditorium because "sanctuary" sounds too churchy and—God forbid!—might offend someone. As I continued to look around I saw a plethora of symbols that richly adorned the dimly lit room: crosses, beautiful paintings, candles, incense, kneeling benches on every pew. I felt like Dorothy when she arrived at Oz. She was alone too.
I followed two older ladies from the doors of the sanctuary to our seats. They knew the routine. They wore the standard crucifix and knew exactly what to do at just the right time. I hoped to mimic them. At our arrival to the pew, each lady knelt low to the ground, made the sign of the cross, and then went to her respective seat. Hoping no one would notice, I made my way to the seat and sat down, wondering if everyone behind me had already tagged me as a pagan, or even worse, a Protestant.
The priest soon entered and began to lead us through the mass. I wanted desperately to know what was going on because it seemed as if everyone around me knew perfectly well. In all my years as a professional church attendee, I have never seen a congregation so involved and responsive. Many times I heard a unified “amen” or “glory be to God” but always felt as if I had missed my cue. For one who is familiar with any form of promptings happening via jumbo screens and expensive projectors, this seemed like an entirely new concept. It was so beautifully foreign to me that everyone in this community of faith seemed to know what was going on through tradition or subtle clues from the priest.
The slow organ music resounding through the church brought to mind pictures of monks in long flowing robes, known only to me from modern sources such as Harry Potter. The altar boys and girls began to bring the elements of the Eucharist to the priest. I participate often in communion, but I have never taken part in the Eucharist. It is the most beautiful and holy ordinance I have ever experienced. The priest lifted the elements heavenward saying, "This is your body; we take it in remembrance of you," and I was moved to tears because for the first time I truly experienced the mystery of communion. It seems that our "method" of partaking in communion has become so mechanical and rigid. In my church’s quarterly remembrance of this ordinance, we tend to have a more informal method of choosing who gets to distribute the elements. We all but play rock, paper, scissors to determine who has to rise from their padded seat to serve the elements. This method, combined with the fact that we completely simplify the mystery of communion down to a nice three-point outline, does little to remind us of Christ’s sacrifice, but serves more to remind us of our own lack of reverence for this beautiful ceremony.
One of the most practical, yet memorable elements of the service for me was the Exchange of Peace. In my many years of church attendance, there is always a time of welcome, which is basically a time of uttering superficial "how are yous" and "I am so glad you’re heres." As the priest blessed the congregation with "Peace be with you," we responded back with "and with you as well." These simple words brought with them so much significance as we were then able to intermingle with those around us and pass on the same blessing into their lives.
Many who are more familiar with the Catholic church, those who have been raised in this environment, may not understand my complete fascination with this experience. I know many Catholics who speak of their religion as a boring and lifeless faith. My background, on the other hand, is more similar to the opening scene of Dogma. The scene has George Carlin portraying a cardinal striving to put a happier face on an ancient faith with his campaign, "Catholicism Wow!" He wants to replace the "depressing" crucifix with a new icon called Buddy Jesus—a statue of a winking J.C. giving worshippers the thumbs up. In my branch of Protestantism, "Buddy Jesus" isn’t such a bizarre concept. Sadly it is practically a mission statement.
Much of what seems to be seeping back into the church (liturgy, symbols, art, mystery, etc.) gets tagged as "postmodern." Yet this encounter continually reminds me that these things aren’t actually new, but ancient. Many of these things that have been violently ripped out of our churches in the name of "user-friendliness," just serve to rob us of mystery and meaning.
The Catholic church has a beauty, a holiness and an atmosphere of worship that many of our contemporary Protestant churches have lost. Perhaps this is why a new generation of postmoderns is so attracted to these "ancient elements."
It has always been interesting to me how we in the church characterize those who are not yet Christians as “seekers.” Where does that leave people like me? I feel as if I have more unanswered questions now than I did after completing my fourth year at a Christian college. Maybe the emerging church will become a place for lifelong seekers. Maybe the Catholic church will teach Protestants that mystery should be embraced instead of solved.
Thank you, St. Charles Borromeo, for allowing this postmodern Protestant a look into a historic faith, one that is filled with questions without answers, beauty that is found through many different mediums, and a distinct community of faith that is truly a peculiar people.
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