Church

November 13 2012
21

We sat toward the back of Cathedral, having arrived a few minutes late to Mass. The friend visiting from out of town converted to Catholicism a few years back. I could have dropped her off and picked her back up an hour later but this wasn’t my first time at Mass and I doubt it will be my last.

I referred to the program as needed. I’ve amassed a certain amount of liturgical knowledge over the years. There’s a certain comfort in attending Mass. Short of the homily, we basically know how the service will go.

As we drew nearer to the sacrament of communion, I fidgeted more and participated less. The priest spoke of “inclusion” and “exclusiveness” and I wasn’t entirely sure what he was saying about the scripture passage. The irony of his word choice wasn’t lost on me, given what awaited.

My friend rose to go to the front, while I stay seated. The last time I’d been in a Catholic church was at my grandmother’s funeral almost a year prior. The memories of various Masses burned.

I blinked back tears. I wanted to run out of the church.

I wanted to take Communion.

***

We gathered around the Christmas tree a decade or so ago. He said he wanted to read a letter before we opened presents. He liked writing letters and I thought- we all thought- it would be about our family and the season and good things.

Instead he talked of failure, only one of the children still went to Mass. Where had they gone wrong, he lamented, blaming himself. The air sucked out of the room and my eyes flitted from person to person, gauging reactions. It’s a miracle no one stormed out. It may have been written in love but it was received as judgment.

All I could think was: you don’t think I’m a real Christian? Me, who serves, leads small groups, changed churches in high school so I could draw closer to God. My faith doesn’t matter because I don’t go to Mass?

My parents traded the Catholic church for a Protestant one when I was a few years old. I didn’t realize it caused some to grieve.

I didn’t know it was an old-school Church teaching: salvation by Catholicism.

Shell shocked, we opened presents and tried to pretend it was Christmas as usual. We tried to ignore the words rippling through our family.

The pain leaked out in conversations over the years. I always meant to go back to the letter-reader and ask why and share my heart.

I still could.

***

When Grandma died 5 years ago, two of my cousins and I brought the elements to the priest during the funeral. They hadn’t been raised Catholic either. We handed over bread and wine, then sat back down while 99% of the church went forward.

I watched as people made the sign of the cross, people who hadn’t gone to Mass in years, people who denied believing in God. Yet, by virtue of their Catholic roots, they went forward and received.

I sat bound by the pew and my non-Catholic faith.

My grandmother’s funeral and I couldn’t participate in this part of the service. It hadn’t bothered me previously- just one of those religious quirks, you know- but sitting there, my heart howled at the injustice. In the years since, communion has become a scab picked at each time I’m left to sit in the pew.

I’m told unless a Catholic is in good standing, they should not take communion. In good standing, meaning they go to Mass weekly (so much as they are able), confess regularly, and are right with God. I’m told if they are not in good standing and take communion anyway, it is of great offense to God.

I shouldn’t judge some of those who go forward but I do.

The paradox in all this hurt is the way I heave and sigh when churches I attend offer communion. It could take a lifetime to unpack the reasons why. My current church has offered healing by way of its reverent approach to the sacrament. Our hearts are prepared, our souls laid bare, and only then can we process forward and partake.

When my other grandma died last fall, Grandpa asked his largely non-Catholic family to go forward to receive a blessing. He didn’t want to be the only one up there. I crossed my arms and said “blessing” before the priest and I can’t recall the words he said in turn. But it felt right to be up there, though I longed to participate.

Fully.

 

Addendum: I wrote this post more than a month ago. I had no way of knowing I would attend my aunt’s funeral mass in the weeks since. I felt such peace when it was time for communion. Exploring these memories led to such healing.

21 comments

  1. Dear friend, I know this so, so well. In my journey, I am not Catholic for a half dozen reasons, but at the top of the list and the most important for me is the exclusion of other believers at the Table. Every Mass I have ever attended has left me weeping when it comes time to go forward, because I am free to enjoy Communion anywhere else, but not in this space. If the Table is the place where we say that regardless of our particulars, we confess Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, and this abiding mystery of Him made present–whatever that means–in the space in which we receive, it should be the one place where we dump all our theological baggage and simply commune. It is the only dogmatic claim of the Church I am willing to be fiery angry passionate tear streaming about. All others I can manage to disagree over pie and coffee. But this, it cuts into the fibers of my soul. I would go so far as to say that it is an offense to the Gospel itself. It’s an old wound for me. I, who think my brothers and sisters in Christ within the walls of the Church are just as much united to God as I am. I, who would gladly partake beside them within or without the walls of the churches they have approved. I, who speak so much about unity and love and patience, but in this I only seem to rend grief and agony and frustration. I don’t understand it. I can’t understand it. It seems the silliest sort of heresy.

    Reply
    • Ah, friend. I hate that you share this wound. I respect the Church’s wishes but I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand. I wish that I could. In the meantime, I choose to extend grace and pray for healing and unity. It’s the best I can do.

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  2. I’m a former Catholic who left the denomination for Protestantism over strong theological convictions. I just wanted to thank you for this post! It was both fair and convicting in all the right places. Leaving Catholicism caused deep hurt feelings and worries amongst friends and family for me as well. And I understand why, from their theological viewpoint. At this point I moslty avoid going to Mass, as doing so usually makes me sad yet all the more certain of my decision. But when it can’t be avoided, I always pray for unity and healing and for saving faith to be in the hearts of all present, whether Catholicism or not. That’s all that really matters.

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    • Amy, thank you for sharing some of your story. I, too, can understand their theological viewpoint to a degree. I join you in praying for unity and healing.

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  3. Hey there book club member… sooo sorry for that Christmas morning letter…I know this well…I wrote of my journey on the book page….now when I go to church with my Dad…I do go and take communion…what separated us at one time…we can now find unity at the table…God is good:)

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    • Ro, I’d love to hear the whole story sometime.

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  4. Preston said so much better any thing I would struggle to try and say.
    So glad you found peace at your aunt’s funeral. So glad, Leigh.

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    • It was such a relief to sit there and not have that additional pain to deal with.

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  5. Oh, how this breaks my heart. I’m blessed that I never have experienced that exclusion while visiting my cousin’s Catholic churches, though it does explain their shocked faces when I went up. There are just so many amazing, powerful things that take place with Communion, which just seem to be diminished when all the focus on us. There’s a great book by Joseph Prince called “Health and Wholeness Through the Holy Communion” that I wish I had the guts to give to my cousins, and to all those who had been hurt by the churches exclusion. Praying for you and your family that you can find healing and peace when it comes to your differences in faith.

    Reply
    • Interestingly, I really like the liturgy of Catholic communion. When we focus on those words, they do a great job of preparing our hearts for the table, which may be why I struggle in not being able to participate. I respect the Church’s decision on only allowing Catholics in good standing to participate but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand the reasons why. But that’s OK.

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  6. I went to the most amazing, diverse Catholic church last week and felt the shame of sitting still while others went past for communion. But then, at the end of the service, a nun sitting behind me urged me to take my daughter up to the front for the blessing of the children. It was such an amazing, contradictory experience. I am still puzzling over it all. Thanks for sharing your story here.

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    • “Amazing, contradictory experience” is a good way of putting it. I love how that nun noticed you and encouraged your daughter’s participation, at least in that regard.

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  7. Oh wow. This resonates so much. I am a Disciple in large part on account of the radical openness of the table that we affirm. My heart breaks when I have the occasion to be present for Mass. I am, quite simply, hungry. And told no.

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  8. Donna

    Wow.
    This makes my story all the more remarkable! I had never had any connections with Catholicism until I started attending a non-denominational Bible Study group which included a husband and wife who happened to be Catholic. In getting to know, and becoming friends with them, my take on Catholics has radically changed. Because there is no local Catholic church here anymore, Catholics in the area attend mass at a monastery 10mins away. And because of things my friends had said about the monks there, and out of respect for my friends (and curiosity!) my family got brave one Sunday and went to mass. And were entirely startled to really enjoy it, to feel very welcomed and to have a strong sense of the presence of God there. Afterwards when we were talking it over, I told my friends that I hadn’t gone up to take communion, because I wasn’t sure of the protocol, and didn’t know if it would be ok. They then talked to the monks about this, who were horrified that anyone who was at mass might not feel free to receive communion, and told my friends to make sure that I knew that I was entirely welcome to receive communion whenever I was there.
    I was very touched that they would do that, but until I read this, had no idea how far out of the norm their attitude is!
    I have not become a Catholic, but I have a great respect for these men of God that I have met, and take my family to mass at the monastery a couple of times a year.
    If you are ever in New Zealand, come visit the Kopua Monastery – communion is available to all who want it!

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  9. As a Protestant-turned-Catholic, I cannot receive Communion when I visit my Presbyterian parents at Christmas and Easter. When my parents pass away (God willing it be decades down the line), I will not be able to receive Communion at their funerals. I never felt the wounds of division as keenly as I do now. And I believe it’s better to feel them deeply, to be aware of their unnaturalness, then to be unaware, or worse, ignore them. May we all be one once more.

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  10. Alice

    I followed your blog to this post and felt urged to comment. I enjoy your blog and appreciate your honesty, your hopefulness, and your courage. I am sorry that you (and other readers and commentors) have felt hurt by not being able to partake of the Eucharist at a Catholic Mass … but I felt a need to add to the discussion here.

    I am a practicing Catholic (yes, even though I read Protestant blogs sometimes!). There is much we believe in common, yet, there are very real, and serious, differences of theology. Unfortunately, too many Catholics are poorly informed about their theology themselves, and of course, many people may choose knowingly to do wrong (to partake of Communion when not in a state of grace.)

    As Catholics … we believe that the bread and wine become really, truly the Body and Blood of Christ. Physically. It is not a symbol of our unity, of Christ’s love, of anything else. And so, to partake when one does not literally believe this, would be an act of sacrilege from the perspective of the Catholic Church. (If one does believe this … then one might consider converting! ;) We partake in this because we are commanded to do so. It is about the individual and his God — not about anyone else.

    Some churches (and some Priests) do, mistakenly, encourage everyone (even those who do not believe what the Church teaches) to take part. Many of them may be well-meaning — but they are wrong. I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but I think that if you believe something strongly enough, it is only logical that you are going to think that opposing beliefs are incorrect. (If you thought the opposing belief was correct … why wouldn’t you believe that one instead?)

    It seems to me that Protestants and Catholics have a fundamentally different idea about church-attendance. As Catholics, we go to Mass every Sunday because we are fulfilling a duty toward God. We may be nourished spiritually (and, we are, through the Sacraments); we may be edified by our fellow believers. But it is not WHY we go. We are fulfilling a ritual that we have been commanded to follow.

    I do not believe what Hinduism teaches. I do not believe what Muslims believe (for the most part). But if I were to attend a service for another religion such as these, for whatever reason, I would not be offended if I was not welcomed to participate in their rituals. In fact, if I were to attend a Protestant church on a day when Communion was distributed, I could not in conscience participate in that either. Now, when I have attended the Eastern Churches, I could have received Communion from the perspective of my Roman Church (we do both believe in Transubstantiation) but it is the request of the Eastern Churches that we do not — and, so, I do not, and I do not feel wounded.

    Perhaps you are already aware of these teachings and distinctions — I just felt called to respond here. I do not mean to offend anyone or trivialize anyone’s feelings — I just wanted to give the Catholic perspective. While anyone is welcome to attend a Mass, and there is much that everyone can participate in, I hope that people do understand that there are theological reasons not everyone can receive Communion. There are times when we may offend men in our obedience to God (I think this is probably true in all religions), but as much as we want to help everyone and make them comfortable, there are things that are even more important.

    Reply
    • Alice, I’m so grateful you weighed in with your perspective. I’ll let you in on a secret: I read a few blogs written by Catholics myself. While it’s true I’ve been hurt by the Catholic Church, I hold no animosity toward it. I truly do appreciate the way Catholics are meant to approach church attendance, even though I rarely saw this reflected by the Catholics I knew while growing up. In fact, I’ve learned more about the way Catholicism is meant to be practiced by my friends who have converted or those who lucked into being part of a dynamic parish. But it’s not as though Catholics are the only brand of Christianity that struggle with this tension between how things should be and how they actually are.

      Writing this piece gave me so much peace because I have bottled up these hurts the last several years and it only got worse with each successive Mass. I understand the Catholic perspective and I also don’t, simply because it is contrary to most Protestant teachings about communion. (I say most because I was unaware certain Protestant denominations restrict who can participate until hearing from other commenters.) As long as someone is in right standing with God, I believe they should be able to take communion. I certainly respect your decision not to partake at churches outside of your own but it doesn’t make much sense to me. Then again, it doesn’t need to because it’s between what you, what you believe, and God. Not me. I hope this all makes sense. I really do appreciate what you had to say.

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  11. Alena

    Leigh, thank you for writing this post! You bring up many important topics that need to be discussed. I, too, have keenly felt the divide between Christian denominations. It is heartbreaking.

    I am so sorry that you have been hurt by this, and I am also sorry for the other commenters who have also been hurt. As a Catholic, I will try to offer some insight as best I can. It is certainly not meant to be exclusionary, it is because Protestants and Catholics have different fundamental beliefs about communion. Many Protestants believe communion is a symbolic representation of Jesus, while Catholics believe that when the bread and wine are consecrated, they become Jesus’ body and blood. So when we receive communion we are literally receiving Jesus. So it is not meant to exclude, but just ensure those receiving communion know it’s full significance, so it can be fully understood, appreciated, and reverenced.

    I hope this helps a little :) God bless you!

    Reply
    • Thank you for commenting, Alena. I appreciate hearing your perspective. While I know the theological reasons why the Catholic church has made such a distinction, I also don’t understand them, likely because we view communion differently. Writing this piece gave me peace about it. I don’t have to understand why things are the way they are so I will simply go on respecting our differences and praying for unity.

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  12. Anne

    Hi Leigh, I have been reading the discussion on the Communion Supper, and whilst I agree that it is right that one should be at peace with brothers and sisters and submitting to Christ as Lord and Saviour, I find the Catholic idea that the elements of the Sacrament are literally His body and blood a bit odd.
    Because He gave those elements to His disciples in the upper room the night before He died, as a ‘remembrance’ of Him. That they should gather together and share as He is demonstrating to them to remember what He is about to do. If it were to literally be His body and blood then surely He would have given it to them after He rose from the dead – you know? That fact that He did it when He was alive and well in His physical incarnation and as a symbol of the sacrifice He was about to make, suggests that He was using them as material symbols. To connect to Him as the ‘Bread of Life’ and the wine as a foretaste of the wine we will drink at the wedding feast, when He returns for us, as Bridegroom, on the last day.

    We are all offensive to God, no matter how hard we try, thats why He sent Jesus to redeem us. Through Jesus we can have a real relationship with God, not based on what we THINK He might think of us if we do this and that, (which unless it is written in the Bible I wonder if it’s true anyway), but on us saying “you know what Lord I’m not going to crack this whole Salvation issue – Salvation belongs to You anyway! – even no matter how hard I try, i need you Lord to do it for me.’

    Once we come to a place of giving the issue to Him and not tying ourselves up in knots about it, then everything else falls unto place.
    As Jesus said “seek first the Kingdom of God”. Once we make His Words and commands our priority, then we are better fixed to worship Him in a way that He will be pleased with.

    Reply

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