Exit 181. The one time out of the year.

Last night, I was at Christmas Eve Mass at the Catholic church where I grew up.  I was thinking about how Christmas is the one time out of the year when I still attend Catholic Mass, despite having left Catholicism for evangelical Christianity at age 20, and I thought, that would be a good thing to write about this week.  But in looking at old posts about Christmas on this site, I realized I already addressed the topic two years ago (click here to read).  In that post, I focused primarily on how all the prayers and rituals of the Catholic Mass are so much more meaningful to me as an adult, now that I know more about the Bible and the history of Judaism and Christianity.

There is another question I did not answer… why do I still attend Catholic Mass on Christmas, instead of attending my own church or a church more like the ones I have attended as an adult?  Part of the reason is practical.  I am always visiting my family on Christmas, and my mom, grandma, and some combination of other relatives who are here or visiting always attend Mass on Christmas.  This year, we attended Mass on Christmas Eve because my mom does the Scripture readings at church, and that was the time that she was asked to read for.  Depending on when exactly I come to see my family, I am occasionally able to attend Christmas service at my own church as well.  This year, the church I’d been attending the last two years had an early Christmas service last Thursday, and I was going to go there as well, but I decided not to at the last minute for reasons that this isn’t the time to get into here.

I guess the other reason I haven’t stopped going to Mass on Christmas Day is because I haven’t felt a need to.  I’m worshiping Jesus and celebrating his birth with my family.  The fact that this particular group of worshipers has other views regarding transubstantiation, for example, really isn’t that big of a deal to me.

I’m going to keep this short this week and emerge from my old bedroom to see what the family is doing.  (We already opened presents last night.)  Merry Christmas to all of you.

Exit 88. Now I understand what is going on.

I considered myself a Catholic until age 20.  My mom’s family has been Catholic on both sides for as far back as anyone can trace.  I was baptized as a baby, I had my first Communion at age 7, and I went to catechism (somewhat analogous to Sunday school in other branches of Christianity, but not on Sundays) through most of elementary school.  But I always found church somewhat boring.  I typically went to Mass once or twice per month.  I stopped going to catechism around age 12, mostly because the other students were just as mean to me as the other students in school.  I never went through confirmation as a teenager.  I made an effort to go to Mass every week once I started college, and I continued this for another two years, when I began attending an evangelical church.

I still go to Mass once a year, on Christmas.  This is because I am always with my Catholic family on Christmas.  This year, I also attended Mass with Mom the weekend after Christmas, since I was still visiting my family at the time.  As I said, I found Catholic Mass boring as a child, but as an adult, I don’t find it nearly as boring.  The primary reason is that now I understand what is going on.

Catholicism has a lot of interesting reputations among people who aren’t Catholics.  One that tends to come up often among other Christians is that Catholic Masses involve a lot of elaborate rituals, as opposed to a more personal relationship with God among evangelicals and mainline Protestants.  This is definitely true, there are elaborate rituals in a Catholic Mass, but this does not necessarily have to be mutually exclusive with knowing God personally.  The Catholic rituals and prayers have their roots in deep and meaningful worship experiences.  The candles and incense and elaborate stained glass windows create a mood of reverence to honor God, his Holy Scriptures, and the presence of Christ in the bread and wine, as Catholics believe.  Many of the words in the Catholic prayers and songs come directly from the Bible.  “Glory to God in the highest” — these were the words of the angels in Bethlehem the night Jesus was born (Luke 2:14).  “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna! [Save!]” — these were the words of the crowds when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9; John 12:13).

I understand this as an adult, now that I have learned more about the Bible and about the history of Christianity.  But that begs the question… why did I not know this before?  And why do so many people lack so much knowledge about what they believe?  Of course, I may have learned some of this eventually had I continued with catechism and confirmation.  And I probably would have continued with catechism and confirmation had I not felt bullied and ignored at church.  My mom taught catechism and confirmation for many years, and she often had stories of students who were only there because their parents made them go, with no effort or involvement from the students or their parents.  These were the kind of students who bullied me.  And I don’t mean to criticize my catechism teachers, but I don’t remember any of them really making an effort to reach out to me, at least in the way that some of my regular school teachers did.  (Not all, but some.)

This is not just about Catholicism.  I know many people who claim to be adherents of a particular religion, yet they do not always know or understand core tenets of what they say they believe.  As a result of this, their lives do not show that they have been transformed by their belief systems.  This results in inaccurate perceptions and stereotypes of certain religious belief systems.  I don’t have children, and I imagine it is quite difficult to find the balance of teaching children accurate truths about one’s belief system, in an age-appropriate manner, while not watering it down to the point of losing its meaning.  But parents and faith communities who want their children to have their lives transformed in the same way that the lives of the adults have been must find a way to do this.

Exit 74. What are we getting wrong?

I recently read the book Last Mass by Jamie Iredell.  For those of you who know me, it will become quickly apparent from my description here that this is not my usual kind of reading material. Last Mass is a collection of paragraph-long reflections on the history of Catholicism in California during the time of Junipero Serra and his contemporaries, mixed with the author’s own reflections on growing up Catholic in California and the experiences that led him to stop attending Mass in young adulthood. Although I stopped attending Catholic mass at age 20, for very different reasons than Jamie did, I still tend to get a little defensive when reading anything critical of Catholicism, or of European-American culture in general, although from the historical record one cannot argue the fact that that Europeans mistreated Native Americans.  It is a story that needs to be told, so that we do not repeat such abuses in the future.

So in light of that, if this isn’t my usual kind of reading material why did I read this book?  Simple: I knew Jamie as a teenager.  We went to middle and high school together.  We had several classes together over the years.  I didn’t really hang out with him outside of school, but remember, I didn’t really hang out with anyone outside of school at that age.  We lost touch after high school, as I did with almost everyone I knew, but we’ve been back in Facebook contact since 2008, so I’ve seen his posts about the books he’s writing and the pieces that have been published in literary journals.  For a brief time last year, another of his books, I Was A Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac, was being offered as a free Kindle download.  I read it, and I really enjoyed it.  That one was a collection of personal essays that felt kind of like reading a blog like this one, but more well written.  He doesn’t know that I’m writing this, but I’ll probably tag him when I share it to Facebook.

Last Mass was very thought-provoking.  Jamie has a way of connecting his stories about Father Serra with his stories about his own life in just the right way.  It’s always interesting to read his stories, especially when he writes about himself at the age when I knew him.  I never knew he did so many drugs, for example.  While I do not share his conclusions about leaving the Catholic Church (I left for different reasons and opted instead to worship in a different branch of Christianity), I can relate to a lot of the struggles he shared, particularly those about the guilt and shame experienced within the normal bounds of puberty.

Any time I read about abuses perpetuated by Christianity in the name of the Church, such as the Crusades, the mistreatment of the Native Americans that the missionaries were trying to convert, or the acceptance of slavery within historical Christianity, it makes me wonder: How could they have gotten things so wrong?  How could Father Serra and his contemporaries have misinterpreted God’s teaching to the point that natives were whipped and beaten for keeping their cultural practices, native women were routinely raped, and natives were plundered of their possessions?  Of course, those who carried out these abuses were all products of their time and culture, and they should not entirely be judged by modern standards, but still, I wonder how the culture could have strayed so far from God’s teaching in the first place, with so few men or women of God standing up for the truth.

But there is a more important question here.  What are we getting wrong today?  What is it that Christians are doing today that seems perfectly normal in our culture, but blatantly contradicts the Word of God and will make future generations of Christians wonder what we were thinking?  Is it our tolerance of divorce within the church?  Our love of building big fancy church buildings while neglecting the poor in our own communities?  Our desire to water down the truth in order to be accepted in society?  (I don’t mean to be judgmental here, especially considering I have a lot of Christian friends who are divorced, and I’m not. But this is something I wonder about.) This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon.  The Bible is full of stories of God’s people grossly misunderstanding his teaching, and it will probably continue throughout history until Jesus comes back.  The important thing to remember is that I should be making decisions as a Christian based on the Word of God, not based on what the culture says.