When just a child, one thing was always clear to me. “We’re not Catholic.” Then, when I became a Christian at the age of 14, in a small, fundamentalist church, the next layer was added: “Those Catholics are wrong.”
I was told that I certainly wouldn’t want to go to one of their services. I was told they believe in works, not grace. I was told they are run by a dictatorship (i.e., the Pope), not as a good democracy (i.e., how good, American institutions, including churches, should be run). I was told that they worship Mary instead of Jesus. I was told they have to sit in a little wooden box and confess their sins to a priest in order to get forgiveness. I was told that they baptize babies, which is obviously wrong because babies don’t know that they’re saved. And, I was told that their services were really, really boring.
I grew up being told, in no uncertain terms, that Catholics are not a part of our family, the true family. I later learned that the watershed moment of this family split was called the Reformation. This was the time when there was a big ecclesiastical fork in the road, and the true Christians went right with the Protestants, and the false Christians continued left with the Catholics.
Since those days, I’ve visited many Catholic churches. I’ve read lots of Catholic literature, and some Evangelical literature with different slants on Catholicism. My conclusions? Well, I haven’t joined the Catholic church. But I do see them as family (I’m sure the Pope is relieved to hear this!).
So, I visited St. Mary’s Basilica in Phoenix recently. I thought I’d share my experience, from an orphan’s eyes.
Through the lens of my Protestant biases: Since it is “St. Mary’s”, there were an awful lot of Marys in there. Statues, paintings…it did seem to be Mary heavy, and Jesus light. There were also a lot of Francises, since this church is administered by Franciscan friars. It’s a beautiful building, which made me think of how much it cost for all the ornamentation and furnishings (and the sermon dealt specifically with inviting the poor to Jesus). The service was terrible theater — lots of long pauses, challenging acoustics, hard seats, unfocused lighting, no screens, no “normal” musical instruments. Hardly anyone acknowledged my visit (except during the “passing of the peace”).
But more to the point, right from the beginning of the service, the Word of God was central. They processed the Bible to the altar. The priest even kissed his copy of the text after reading the gospel passage in a show of veneration. The prayers and readings were thoroughly drenched in scriptural thought, especially during the set-up for the Eucharist. They read four, longer, rich passages of scripture. The message was pointed, attacking my pride, and calling me to genuine humility before God. I was led in prayer in ways that I wouldn’t have spontaneously prayed myself, which was great. I knelt. I stood. I sang. I sat in stillness.
Then, I looked at their bulletin. The ads on the back are always a bit strange to me (I guess that’s a Catholic thing…), but program announcements are compelling: a teaching article on the gospel reading, a call to those wanting a richer Monday-through-Saturday spiritual life, children’s classes, membership classes, and calls for people willing to care for the sick, work with the youth, help with the arts (!), prepare for worship, and to offer ongoing prayer support to others.
Not once during my visit was I confronted with the major points of discrepancy I have with Catholic doctrine. I was not put in a position where I was called to worship Mary. At no time did Papal authority come down on me in a negative way. Never once did the priest reference a Thomistic version of the transubstantiated host. I was never encouraged to place Biblical truth behind a man-made tradition. And in no way was I made to believe that I had to work my way to God’s favor. Instead, all was about Jesus, His headship, his presence, and His grace.
I also saw something else I don’t see very often. All kinds of people were worshiping together in this downtown gathering. Old and young, from many ethnic groups. Some seemed devout and moved, but not most. Some were obviously very poor. Some seemed totally disinterested. The great equalizer was seen in the queuing up to receive the Eucharist – all those people, regardless of who they have become, and all with different levels of mental ascent as to what was actually happening there … all streaming forward to receive Christ. What they all knew is that they needed this. And the church was there to hand them the tangible Gospel, as Jesus has told us to do. Really, simply, beautiful.
I sensed that I’m welcome here. And that this is not a dangerous place. I still don’t get everything about them, and I still have my theological questions. Like I said, I haven’t joined the Catholic church. But, I’m happy that they are a part of my family, and I think I have a lot to learn from them. We might have some insights for them, too – if we can ever get along long enough to have a nice conversation.
Thanks, St. Mary’s, for welcoming me, and inviting me to Christ.