Sunday, July 08, 2012

A Lutheran visits Roman Catholic services

This summer I hope to visit different Christian worship services. Part of the reason is to help my thoughts about Christian reconciliation. Part is because my pastor is not reliably Lutheran in his teachings; he does not reliably focus on Christ, and on God's love, and on God's faithfulness. He shows no passion for following Jesus, or for leading his sheep in the same. This leaves my soul hungry as often as not, even right after worship.

Why start with Rome? Honestly, it's because the 7:30am mass left me time to still be at my own church service this morning.

So here are my thoughts about the differences that I saw. I should mention from the beginning that the priest had a thick accent and struggled with English; I caught most of what he said, but not quite everything.

The sanctuary

The sanctuary was beautiful. They had paintings and stained glass and -- though I didn't get a close look -- I think also some sculpture. I know that there are Lutheran churches that do the same, but it's less consistent or (sometimes) not quite as whole-hearted. Does that matter? I think it does in this sense: a full-bodied religion -- as opposed to a reactionary splinter schismatic group -- has enough breadth and depth that it encompasses all of human culture: writing and music, art and sculpture, government, philosophy, scholarship, architecture, and so on. The mature religions have, at some point, by themselves had full and sole responsibility for running a nation or even building a civilization, usually for centuries at a time. It is a litmus test that I use in my own mind to gauge whether a group is in full engagement with God and his world, or is merely reacting to someone else. If a group does not produce any artists or scholars or musicians or leaders that are high-caliber, recognized and admired outside their own group, then I tend to suspect the group is a reactionary sect, that their thought and theology and spiritual life are lacking on a very basic level.

Liturgy and worship

The service was a recognizable liturgical service: three Scripture readings (Old Testament, Gospel, and Epistle) with a psalm in the middle; a sermon; an offering and holy communion, with prayers at various points. There were some small differences in the service from what I was used to. The doxology was split off from the proper Lord's prayer; that is to say, "the kingdom and the power and the glory" part was said separately. (This is one instance in which Rome's liturgy sticks closer to the Bible.) The Agnus Dei ("Lamb of God") canticle before communion had a line about "Prince of Peace, who takes away the sin of the world" where the liturgy I'm used to has several repetitions of the Biblical "Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world". The words of institution for communion were also altered from what is in Scripture, "This is the new and eternal covenant." I'm sure Lutherans would not argue against the new covenant being called eternal, but the change from simply reading Scripture at that point in the service was unexpected. The Nicene Creed was in a different translation than I'm used to, and (unsurprisingly) spoke of one holy catholic and apostolic church, in keeping with Rome's opinion, as best I can tell, that they themselves are the one true church. (I like those translations of the creed that speak of one holy worldwide or universal and apostolic church; as far as I can tell that's in keeping with the original meaning of the word.) They had kneelers built into the pews, so that people knelt in their pews before communion, but received communion standing up, and not at the altar. (In Lutheran churches we typically do not have kneelers in the pews, but go to the altar and kneel to receive communion.) There were few songs during the service, and when there were songs, few people sang. Those who did sing were quiet, nearly a whisper of a song. There was no choir. (I had the impression that this congregation was hesitant about music in the same way that some Protestants are hesitant about visual art.)

Roman Catholic particulars

Many of the people genuflected before entering the row to sit down. They rang a bell -- and for an extended time -- as the bread and wine were consecrated. As we left, the fellow in front of me took some water (which I would guess was holy water) on his way out the door, and seemed to make the sign of the cross with it. Making the sign of the cross during worship was more common than I'm used to. There was a mention of "Mary, Mother of God" -- which is something Lutherans acknowledge yet, in light of how easy it is to misunderstand the phrase "Mother of God" and how adoration of Mary has at times gone beyond proper boundaries, we generally find more direct ways to proclaim Christ's relation to God.

The sermon

Today's gospel reading was Jesus being rejected at Nazareth. The first sermon point was that God is in ordinary things and places that we may reject for their ordinariness or familiarity. Still, God is present in the ordinary and familiar just as surely as in the extraordinary and unfamiliar. The second sermon point was that we should imitate Jesus' courage in the face of rejection, and not bow before pressure to meet the expectations of the world. The priest closed with a joke that seemed completely unrelated to the sermon but served as an ending laugh-line. I suppose that any preacher might give in to the wish to be entertaining. The main thing a Lutheran would object to in the sermon is speaking of Christ mainly as an example of how we are to live our own lives, or an object lesson about how God uses the ordinary, rather than as himself the good news transforming our lives.

The prayers

The only prayer that took me by surprise was a petition for those who we wish were here with us and for the harm that the church has inflicted. The topic of Rome's sex scandals has already been done thoroughly, so I'll limit my comments here to saying: it's probably a good thing to pray about it, and to frankly acknowledge it in the service as the reason that some people aren't attending. There was also a part about thanking God for counting us worthy to be there or something along those lines, which is something Lutherans probably wouldn't dream of saying. If we did (which is doubtful), we would be quick to add that it was solely on account of his mercy that he shows to all the world.

The leadership

The early Protestants spoke of "the priesthood of all believers", so it made me smile with the irony that Rome has more leadership in worship from people other than the priest than my own congregation does on a typical Sunday. Someone other than the priest read the various Scripture readings, and there was mention during the announcements of a sign-up sheet to be a reader. (Many Lutheran churches still follow the ancient practice, inherited from the synagogues, of having members of the general congregation read the Scriptures during worship; mine somehow does not.) And while someone other than the pastor gives out communion at our church when the pastor is out of town, generally the pastor has a key part in distributing communion at a typical Sunday when he is in attendance. In this church, while the priest blessed the sacrament, it looked like distribution was done entirely by other people, both men and women, at various places in the sanctuary.

The congregation

The people were friendly, and the service was clearly come-as-you-are. (Which is good, considering I'd assumed it by habit, and dressed accordingly.) There was some general handshaking during the "pass the peace" portion of the service. Everyone seemed to have a general Christian goodwill towards the other people there. I wondered if they had known I'm a Lutheran, what the reaction would have been. Would the love of Christ have taken first place, or would our divisions (and centuries of its effects) have been first in their minds? That would probably depend on the person.


christianintegratethyself said...

Welcome to the Catholic Church. I would just like to say, as a Catholic and not from the Church you attended, that I would expect my Catholic brothers and sisters to welcome you wholeheartedly as our sister in Christ. There are many ecumenical endeavors that have taken place to bring us into dialogue with one another and they are becoming more mainstream but despite that our faith moves us to welcome the stranger at our door. So I send you this welcome.

I am a Catholic chaplain and am just a few credits away from receiving my Masters in Theology. I feel I have been blessed with the opportunity to have made available to me educational materials that have helped me to understand how much the Catholic and Lutheran churches have moved towards being Church with one another. Yes, we still are not in "communion" with each other and that is an important difference worthy of respect and continued conversation but we have formally for the world recognized each other's baptisms and that through the grace of our loving God. So, once again, welcome, welcome.

Weekend Fisher said...

Thanks for the kind words. And God bless you in the ministry of the chaplaincy.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Howard said...

I just wanted to say I truly understand your need - I spent many years 'outside', simply because I couldn't find somewhere which focused upon Christ and the Gospel of unmerited mercy on Sundays, so I hope your search is fruitful and of benefit. Interesting observations on your visit. I recently spent a fair amount of time corresponding with a Roman Catholic and it became clear that the issue of authority (Rome or Scripture) is still paramount on a range of issues.
I look forward to further entries.

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey Howard, good to see you again. Hope all is going well. Thanks for the good wishes.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF