I am not Catholic. I’m not quite sure what I am instead, having been through URC, Methodist, Anglican and Salvation Army in my youth, and as an adult ending up with the Baptists. In the UK, the Baptists are about as loosely defined a group as you’re likely to find. From my experience, British Baptists agree that the bible and the holy spirit should take precedence over tradition and church teaching, and that one should be baptised into the faith when one is old enough to make that choice (as opposed to infant baptism). Also from experience, Baptists are solid enough in their faith that they can agree to disagree.
Like I say, I’m not Catholic. And I’m a bit of a spiritual mutt. So when I found myself this morning at a Catholic mass I was keen to learn both the differences and the similarities of the eucharist.
Tink and Squidge attend a Catholic primary school. Last year, Tink was desperately unhappy at school. It was a bog-standard secular state primary school, where no one seemed to see the same child that I saw. The teacher continually made Tink feel as if she was nothing but a ‘naughty’ girl. She would daily come out of school with a heavy heart (which in turn broke my heart!). I tried homeschooling, but this did not work either.
One thing led to another and in answer to our prayers, this God-centred school accepted her. A few months later a space appeared in Key Stage 1 (which is almost impossible… the woman on the phone from School Admissions was gobsmacked… God is good!) and Squidge joined her sister. Both girls are now happy and thriving. Tink has made up for the struggles she previously experienced and has moved from low-average to being a consistently high achiever, like I always knew she could.
This morning, Tink had volunteered to do a reading during the mass, so I went along. I have only ever been to a Catholic service once before, and that was a funeral. This morning’s service wasn’t my cup of tea, but there were parts that I really enjoyed and could relate to. I learned a lot and am grateful for the experience.
The words that the congregation were supposed to say were spoken so quickly that it seemed to lose any sense of contemplation and reflection, instead sounding like a well-rehearsed ritual, though the words themselves had a real spiritual resonance and depth. The songs were typical school songs, so I can’t really say much about those. The pace slowed a little when it came to the prayers surrounding the bread and the wine, which allowed me to reflect on what I was hearing. I confess I loved the ringing of the bell to symbolise the presence of the holy spirit (I have experienced this before in High Anglican situations). There is something mystical (i.e. beyond human understanding) about the nature of the divine made flesh, and the physical representation of this in the bread and the wine. While I can’t go so far as to say I believe in transubstantiation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transubstantiation), I do believe there is a spiritual ‘transubstantiation’ that occurs with the presence of the holy spirit and the fulfilment of Jesus’ instruction to ‘do this in remembrance of me’. It is a legacy that has lasted, in various forms, from Jesus’ own lips – surrounded by his dearest friends – to the present day, to you and me.
Catholics do not allow non-Catholics to take the bread and the wine, and even when you are Catholic, only the officiating priest drinks the wine, so I was told that I could receive a blessing. The priest raised his hand to my forehead and spoke a few words of prayer.
Afterwards we all said the Lord’s prayer, and I was struck by how this one prayer is something all Christians have in common. It was a wonderful sense of God’s supremacy: despite all our differences, Jesus left us with this legacy which binds us together. All denominations are created by people, not by God. We are all part of his one, holy catholic (small ‘c’) church, by His grace.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, talks about being all things to all people. I believe that anything less, including insisting that only our own way is the right way, is not Christ-like and does not honour God. It is a very tricky thing to do, but worth it, if I am to grow more like Jesus, who loved all for who they are (he knows how screwed up you are – and he loves you anyway).
If I can walk into a church service which is totally alien in structure, and be mindful and respectful of those around me, and open to what the holy spirit can say to me despite the differences in words and music, if I can accept that it’s ok to disagree on doctrinal matters, providing we agree that Christ is the one and only saviour, etc.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_versions_of_the_Nicene_Creed_in_current_use), maybe I too can be all things to all people, and help establish God’s Kingdom on earth, which is what all Christians seek when we pray the words of the Lord’s prayer. Together, we have a strength of purpose that can change the whole world. Apart, squabbling over differences, all we do is show the world how petty we can be…
‘Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.’
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NIV UK)