People often ask what started our investigation into Catholicism. While the prodding of the Holy Spirit took the form of discovering different “puzzle pieces” that connected to each other, there is one piece that I remember identifying close to the beginning of the search — the liturgy. Continue reading “Conversion Memoir Entry #6: The Liturgical Service”
Certainly one of the prominent differences between most Protestant denominations and Catholicism is the teaching on communion — the Eucharist. My experience growing up, especially since we attended many different denominations, was generally that communion was this thing that we do once in a while to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us. Communion was usually done once a month; and, at many churches, during the Sunday night service. The lack of frequency and prominence given to the ritual communicated to me — as a child and an adult — that it wasn’t that important; at least, it wasn’t important enough to be a central part of the Sunday morning worship experience. And given what these denominations believe about the substance of the bread and wine (juice), it is easy to see how the infrequent consumption and lack of prominence was established. Most Protestant denominations and churches think of the bread and wine purely as symbols of Christ’s body and blood, nothing more.
My husband has a humorous phrase he often uses to describe his previous experience with communion growing up — “Juicy Juice and hot dog buns.” Now, I’m not sure if any particular denomination or individual church actually uses these two products as the “bread” and “wine” in communion. I can’t say that I have seen anyone tearing up hot dog buns for the communion tray; but it certainly is accurate to say that the choice of bread and drink is rather indiscriminatory. I’ve seen a lot of different kinds of bread used. In fact, as a child (who kind of thought of communion as a once-a-month “snack time”), I was particularly interested in the selection. Some churches we were in would use crackers; others chose delicious soft artisan bread. I was definitely holding out hope for the yummy bread, and it was an extra bonus if you got to tear off a generous piece yourself. I remember the communion tray being passed down my aisle, and my siblings and I often paused too long, trying to select the largest piece. “The cup” was usually red grape juice; I don’t know if it was Juicy Juice brand, but what kid doesn’t like grape juice — especially in those fun plastic miniature cups? I sometimes would go around after service collecting them from the pews to wash and use for a “tea party” later.
Looking back, this experience seems so foreign to me, now knowing the significance of the Eucharist — the Sacrament of sacraments — and its centrality to our worship in the liturgy. For much of my pre-conversion adulthood, I had a growing inclination that Protestant communion lacked the prominence it should have; it certainly seemed like an afterthought in many denominations and churches I attended. My suspicion was that something was disconnected or missing in the way that we observed and received communion. When I started attending the Catholic mass I realized that the Eucharist was the central component of the liturgy, for which all other elements prepare us to receive. The richness of the Sacrament and the beauty of its placement in the liturgy seemed like a precious treasure uncovered, which I hadn’t know existed.
The liturgy of the mass is divided into two parts: the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Eucharist. Both are Christ-centered, as Christ is “the Word” (John 1:1). In mass we are both hearing the Word proclaimed and consuming the Word in our bodies. We first listen to and participate in the readings from the Old and New Testaments as they unfold the Gospel narrative — Christ is the fulfillment of the law and the perfect sacrificial lamb by whom we are saved. After hearing the Word, and the homily’s reflection on the Gospel message, we then move our focus to the altar. There is Christ — his body and blood, His sacrificial gift to us in the bread and the wine. When the priest consecrates them they transform, through a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend, into the real presence of Christ. We come forward, in a posture of gratitude and reverence, to receive Him.
All of this is what was missing in my Protestant experience of communion. Among other things, there was sometimes a lack of reverence and sacredness; but the mystical was always absent. Every time I am in mass I am reminded in the Eucharist that these mysteries of faith are beyond my human capacity. They are gifts of grace, which now I experience in part; one day I will experience in full. Audrey Assad, Catholic singer and songwriter, describes it beautifully in her song “Receive”:
Holy Wisdom, God in Heaven
Here in human time
Humble Godhead bending low and
Touching bread and wine.
Faith is making plain the truth beneath the veil
Faith supplying where our feeble senses fail
To the Father, to the Son,
And to the Spirit be
Blessing, honour, glory, power,
Might, and majesty
It is God who we encounter,
It is God that we receive
From this altar we do believe.
Every time I am in mass I have the opportunity to receive Christ. I come into the liturgy offering the gift of worship, offering myself, and I leave with all the graces in the sacrament of the Eucharist. I have heard some Catholics say that many things could be falling apart in the Catholic Church and they would still stay for love of the Eucharist, because Christ is present there. I understand that sentiment, because for most of my life I took communion without the real presence of Christ; it was not a sacrament. It was commemorative. The Protestant Reformation certainly had valid critiques of the Church at the time, many of which the counter-reformation that happened within the Catholic Church afterward addressed. But there were also some grave losses. The breakdown and dismantling of the sacraments is the most significant one, especially the loss of the blessed Sacrament. I am most grateful to have rediscovered it for myself and for my family.
But for one particular individual, I may never have become Catholic; without this person I may never have experienced the amazing graces that have flooded my life in the last two years. That person is my husband, Mike.
Mike and I came into the Catholic Church together, with our two children at the time (ages 2 and 2 months). Not only did we convert together, but the journey of inquiry into Catholicism was a shared experience the whole way. It seemed that God was moving our hearts simultaneously, and to have the support and companionship of your spouse during such a process was a great blessing. It is not often the case. Many converts journeys, such as Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s story, involve different timelines for spouses entering the church — if the experience is even mutual at all.
We had most of the same questions and concerns in common during our investigation into Catholicism, but Mike was the one who started seeking first and kept pushing us on along the way. Sometime in 2010, after finishing a one-year period of study at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California, he read Christian Smith’s How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps, and then he passed it on to me. When I finally finished it, I realized that I resonated with every single step. In fact, Smith had given words to inclinations that I never had words for regarding certain problematic aspects of Protestant doctrines or practices. Reading that book started a dialogue between me and Mike, and from that point on Mike would keep us moving forward with the question: Okay, what do we do with that?
I wasn’t reflective of it at the time, but looking back I realize that my marriage was the main vehicle bringing me into the Catholic Church. I was seeking truth and seeking God’s will, but I was less aware until after the fact that it was my marriage that was aligning me with God’s will for my life — making me holier. I was living sacramentally; I just didn’t know it yet — because evangelical Protestant denominations do not profess a sacramental theology or speak of marriage as a sacrament. Monsignor Charles Pope is the priest that celebrated our confirmation mass, bringing us into the Church and baptizing our boys. During our preparatory meetings with him he explained the seven sacraments of the church, of which marriage is one. Of course the Catholic Church recognizes (valid) Protestant marriages and baptisms. We didn’t get “re-married” or “re-baptized” when we entered the church. So my marriage always was a sacrament, and I always had the opportunity to receive the graces from that sacrament, but I was going along without conceiving of it that way.
Now, as a Catholic, my perspective of my marriage is so much richer; I understand the ways in which my marriage creates opportunities for God’s grace in my life. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
“This grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity. By this grace they ‘help one another to attain holiness in their married life and in welcoming and educating their children.’
“Christ is the source of this grace. ‘Just as of old God encountered his people with a covenant of love and fidelity, so our Savior, the spouse of the Church, now encounters Christian spouses through the sacrament of Matrimony.’ Christ dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,’ and to love one another with supernatural, tender, and fruitful love.”¹
God is using my marriage to help me get ready for heaven, to prepare me for being in His presence. My marriage is not just some accessory of my life; it’s my vocation. My marriage does’t exist to make me happier (in terms of base-level happiness), but to make me holier. Many would rebuff at this statement; it goes against our society’s consumeristic and individualistic frameworks. One of the reasons that sacramental marriage in the Church is not the same as conceptions of marriage by the state is that they exist for different ends. The state emphasizes contractual language in the relationship; the Church emphasizes covenant language in the sacrament. Civil unions create partnerships and agreements based on one person fulfilling the needs and the expectations of the other, and–as with other contracts–when one end of the bargain is not fulfilled the other is released from obligation, and the union can be dissolved. (Actually, it can be dissolved for no reason.)
The sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church is indissoluble; it’s not a contract created by human law. It is the mystical union of two souls by God that creates a covenant relationship, the purpose of which extends far beyond my own personal wants and needs. The Catechism puts it powerfully:
“The purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the Body of Christ and, finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it. That is why they are called ‘sacraments of faith.'”²
When in faith I come to the sacrament, it is my own faith that is strengthened and nourished. Moreover, not only does my marriage exist to sanctify me and my husband; it also edifies others within the church, and my faithfulness within my marriage is an act of worship to my God — the one who created me, redeemed me, and sanctifies me.
There is a great temptation — I have experienced it and fallen prey to it — for the married individual to look everywhere other than his or her spouse for a method of spiritual renewal. Perhaps there is a new book, perhaps more prayer, perhaps many things. Of course these all are worthy pursuits. Yet, God in his wisdom designed an avenue by which we can obtain holiness as married individuals — union with our spouses. My husband is the best mirror I have for revealing my sinful flaws and selfish inclinations. Quite honestly, if he wasn’t in my life — if I was running solo — there would be many flaws that I could easily ignore. There is a wonderful grace that God gives in the gift of a spouse, because your spouse doesn’t need to be perfect to help you reveal your flaws and the ways in which your faith needs to grow. Each in their own shortcomings husband and wife reveal the other’s deepest brokenness and provide opportunities for personal holiness, opportunities for blessing other believers, and (most importantly) opportunities for worshipping our great God.
¹ Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) 1641-1642
² CCC 1123