Monday, January 29, 2007

Are you afraid of the Catholics?

The Catholics are so mysterious.

Or, what's up with the Catholics and their mysteries?

Or, I don't get Catholics. They're weird.

These and other statements are not merely dramatizations. No, people actually think this way.

Growing up as a Catholic, I didn't encounter much of this, and I wasn't exposed to anything else that might force a confrontation with my religious habits.

Now that I'm a non-practicing Catholic, venturing beyond the altar to other denominations and religions, suddenly it's clear that outsiders know as little about Catholics as I did about them--and possess any number of stereotypes.

Here's what insight I can offer: Catholics are ceremonial. Their method of worship is ritualistic and not studious. It is about recitation, not consideration (that is more personal and not shared with the congregation).

I have been to several non-Catholic services as a curious pilgrim. A few, such as the Methodists and the Lutherans, are reflections of the more delicate pageant of the mass. Those denominations have variant theologies, which set them apart. They're close relatives. The rest take a much different approach to church. Here is what defines Catholicism, as far as I can tell:

*Call and response
*Proclamation of the word (as opposed to examination)
*Memorized prayers
*Biblical hymns (as opposed to worship music)
*Transubstantiation (the literal altering of material substances by the Holy Spirit)

You know that your religion is a strict ceremony when you find yourself faced with a slight alteration or addition. I was in Idaho, at my aunt and uncle's church. Their mass was, as to be expected, the same as any other I've been to. Except, it included an optional prayer, a Marian devotion known as the Angelus:

"V. The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.
R. And she conceived of the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. Behold the handmaid of the Lord.
R. Be it done unto me according to thy word.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. And the Word was made Flesh.
R. And dwelt among us.

Hail Mary, etc.

V. Pray for us, O holy Mother of God.
R. That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.


Pour forth, we beseech Thee, O Lord, Thy grace into our hearts, that we to whom the Incarnation of Christ Thy Son was made known by the message of an angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection. Through the same Christ Our Lord. Amen."

This prayer arose in the eleventh century. There were several monastic customs involving Hail Marys recited at intervals throughout the day. It was standardized in the seventeenth century. In many countries it is still practiced as a thrice daily devotion, signalled by the toll of an Angelus Bell. I was not aware that it could also be part of the mass.

Nice bit of trivia, Nick. I bring this up as an example. Notice how formal and theatrical it sounds. For Catholics, the power of religion is in practice. Through a common form that is quickly learned and rarely altered, their faith and convictions can be renewed each week. Study of the word, discussion of ideas, personal expressions of worship and discovery are relgated to other arenas than the mass. Music, prayers from the congregation, readings from the Word are all elements of a larger rite, and they reflect its structure. It's like going to the opera--and fifty years ago even more so: you'd have had to settle for an old Italian language.

So yes, there is mystery, and yes, one feels estranged at a Catholic mass. That's the point. It's in the doing, not the understanding. This does not work for everyone, and I might include myself. However, it's not that what Catholics do is so mysterious--check it out for yourself, it's pretty transparent: a tour of the new mass (since the 70s). It's that Catholics are more concerned with the mystery than with knowledge. This, of course, appeals to me. How it applies to one's life...that's the bigger question, and that's why I do what I do.

More soon.


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