Sunday, July 11, 2010

A Visit To Rome – Kind Of

I went to Mass at our local Catholic church this afternoon with my mother-in-law (AKA in this blog as Grandma).  My normal blog readers have probably figured out by now that I’m an Evangelical.  To be specific, I attend (and PWM is an elder at) an Evangelical Free Church in America congregation.  I’m quite happy with my evangelical beliefs and theology, although I will admit to some frustration with various and sundry evangelical shenanigans that have gone on in this country in the last few years. 

Nonetheless, in the last few years, I have explored some other spiritual practices that were foreign to me in my evangelical upbringing, such as fixed hour prayer, scripted prayers, and following the liturgical year.  I’ve found that some of these things can add richness to my own spiritual experience as long as I’m doing them as part of a discipline and not a “fad” or “expression” for other people to notice.

I enjoyed the service today at the Catholic church.  The building is just a block away, so it’s a very easy walk (although we drove because a very bad storm was moving through).  I’m also glad for the chance to see old friends and neighbors and meet those who are still new to me.  I did find it a bit awkward because I didn’t participate in the Eucharist since I’m not a baptized Catholic and I don’t believe in transubstantiation.  I’m also a little embarrassed that I don’t know the Apostle’s Creed.  (I don’t mind that I don’t know the other things that everyone else can recite, but I do think that the Apostle’s Creed (or was it the Nicene Creed?) is something that every Christian should commit to memory.)

What the Catholic church does well:

  • Ritual – everyone knows what to do when.  I was always taught that this is a bad thing, but, honestly, we evangelicals just have a different kind of ritual.  The Catholic ritual still has a kind of Medieval feeling to it that I find comforting.
  • The Church Year – Now that Pentecost is past, we’re in “ordinary time” until Christmas (which I’m just now learning about now that I’m in my 40s).  The Church focuses on the life of Jesus from Christmas through Easter, then celebrates Pentecost, and then goes into “ordinary time”.  The whole Church is always reading the same readings and celebrating the same things no matter where you are in the world.  It’s very unifying.
  • Scripture reading – In many evangelical churches, you can go through the entire church service and only hear one or two verses from the Bible read – usually the text that the preacher is using.  In the Catholic service, there are readings from the Old Testament, New Testament, and Gospel (which is part of the New Testament, but it is a separate reading).  This much Bible reading can’t be a bad thing!  And, anyway, I like hearing the Bible read out loud.
  • Consistent focus on Jesus and his sacrifice – You can’t fault the Catholic church for  forgetting about Jesus!  Some evangelical churches preach such self-help sermons or Prosperity Gospel, that it’s hard to find Jesus.  You may quibble with the law/gospel distinction in Catholic theology, but Jesus is definitely central in the service.  And the priest this afternoon spoke today about the Good Samaritan and the Gospel is about love – unending love.
  • Theology of suffering – The Catholic Church has a much more robust theology of suffering than most evangelical denominations.  The idea of identifying with Christ in our suffering is quite comforting for those of us in pain.  Many evangelicals (and this may be largely a US phenomena, I’m not sure) think it’s our right as Christians to not suffer – hence the Prosperity Gospel phenomena.
  • Social services – The Roman Catholic church provides a huge number of social services in many parts of this country and puts many of us evangelicals to shame.  In fact, much of the pro-life movement was started by Catholics.  Evangelicals can learn much about community from several of the Catholic parishes I’ve seen.

Why I’m not a Roman Catholic (or why I’m staying an evangelical)

  • The Marian dogmas – Most Catholics tell me that they don’t worship Mary and I can buy that.  But, I still don’t see the biblical basis for the elevated status that they give Mary, the mother of Jesus.
  • The role of tradition – I’m still not clear on all of this, but I’m such a believer in sola scriptura that the idea that the tradition and the Church have authority even close to that of the Bible really bothers me.  This one is a pretty big deal to me.
  • The doctrine of the papacy – I simply don’t interpret the passage in Matthew the same way that the Catholic church does.  Of course, this is one of those places that the remnants of Medieval tradition don’t really help the case of the Church in my mind.  In any case, it’s really a theological issue.
  • Transubstantiation – I was never really taught all the different beliefs about the Lord’s Supper – transubstantiation, consubstantiation, Real Presence, etc. – but I’ve always considered the elements of Communion to be physical representatives of Jesus’ sacrifice.  Granted, I was raised Southern Baptist, and we didn’t “do” any of the mystical kinds of stuff.  I still hold to that view based on my reading of the Bible.

As you can see, I won’t be swimming the Tiber any time soon, but I am learning to appreciate the beauty and truth that each branch of Christianity brings to the whole.  What has been your experience?  Have you found anything helpful from other denominations of Christianity?


Anonymous said...


This is a very thoughtful piece regarding your recent experience with the Catholic Mass. It grieves me to say that your discussion of the matter displays a deeper understanding of Catholic teaching than you are likely to find from most practicing Catholics. I was raised Catholic, and left the Church as a young man to become Southern Baptist without being able to state with an adult's understanding what it meant to be Catholic. I'll spare you all of the details of how I came to return to the Church in 2004, except to say that it was mainly through a study of the writings of Protestant clergy who "Crossed the Tiber." To a man and woman, they went through the same misgivings you mentioned in your essay. No one is a more effective Catholic than one who arrived there by wrestling with these things. Without that struggle, you simply cannot understand the faith. You hit on so many of the key issues one addresses when examining Catholicism from the outside. On the inside, it tends to be taken for granted.

When I was a Protestant, the singer/songwriter I most admired was Rich Mullins. It stunned me to learn a couple of weeks ago that he had completed RCIA classes and was said to be considering conversion. I went back to listen to the lyrics of some of his songs, and was shocked by how consistent the theology of his writings was with Catholic doctrine. "Screen Door?" "Creed?" In hindsight, it amazes me he was as universally accepted by Protestants as he was.

Where I live, evangelicals tend to be the "whore of Babylon" types who know nothing about the Church except that which they were taught by like-minded folk. Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to say, "there aren't 100 people in America who hate Catholicism, but millions who hate what they think it is." How wonderful it would be if everyone would be as well informed as you are. God bless!

Catherine said...

I had heard that about Rich Mullins. Actually, reading a lot about Rich Mullins has helped me to expand my horizons about my faith. I did grow up with a lot of animosity toward the Roman Catholic church, so being able to reasonably evaluate other Christian churches is not something I was encouraged to do!

I'm glad that you are in a church you have reached by prayer and guidance of the Holy Spirit. That's far more important than staying where we started because we "grew up in the church"!