Not being a Catholic, all of the headlines about the upcoming changes to the Church’s services were a bit of a mystery to me at first. But I’ve since been reading up on the pending adjustments, and in doing so, I’ve learned a little bit more about just how different Catholic Mass is from what I’m used to.
I’ve long been familiar with the idea that the roles of the priest in mass are very specific and important. Not only are they the ones to offer the sermon and preside over communion; they also are the only ones allowed to preside over confession and to offer forgiveness of sin, as I understand. Though some protestant churches hold similar values about who can preach, bless and serve communion, the idea of requiring an intercessor like a priest to forgive sin on God’s behalf is contrary in a lot of ways to what being a non-Catholic Christian is about.
My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), takes this idea a step further. Not only were we one of the first denominations to ordain women as ministers; we also emerged as a movement in reaction against the idea that the Church had authority to decide who could and could not participate in communion. We also celebrate the idea of the “Priesthood of All Believers,” which my wife, Rev. Amy Piatt explains weekly in worship.
“I am the pastor,” she says, “but we are all ministers. We all have a ministry.” We mean it, too. We all take turns serving communion, and we have “laypeople” participate in all parts of the service on a regular basis. When this is your normal way of doing church, it’s easy to take for granted how radically different this is from other traditions. But none is more foreign to this way of doing church than Catholicism.
The big debate seems to revolve around the archaic verbiage being introduced into the new Catholic mass, a move which is intended to keep the English spoken in a service more consistent with the Latin from which it is being translated. But aside from the complexity and inconvenience of the changes, some priests have other worries. ‘‘It doesn’t make sense,” says Rev. Tom Iwanowski, who has been a priest for 36 years. “It separates religion from real life.’’
This is another big difference. While many protestants, particularly those interested in the emerging church movement, are intent on better understanding how our faith can be more integrated into practical daily life, it seems that Catholicism emphasizes quite the opposite. Mass, the priesthood and related rituals are specifically intended to be set apart. For some like Ianowski, it’s just the latest wedge between them and a culture that sees the church as decreasingly relevant. But for others, at least those in charge of calling for the changes, the fact that Church is out of step with the world is something to be valued and protected.
Every Christian has a different favorite scripture for various reasons, but I’ve argued before that one of the most important to the protestant faith is in both Matthew 27:51 and Mark 15:38 when the veil in the temple is torn at the moment of Jesus’ death. The veil was meant to separate the holy space from the common area where worshipers were allowed. The torn veil represents the removal of those barriers – particularly those imposed by the institutional church for us protestants – that would keep us separate from God. Theologians like Martin Luther, and later Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell who started the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), would build on this idea to forge a new way to understand God and the priesthood.
Granted, I do believe there is something to be said for the universal traditions of the Catholic Church. In fact, many protestants have tossed out all such unifying practices in the spirit of autonomy, which doesn’t necessarily serve our constituents any better. Though at Milagro (the church Amy and I founded seven-plus years ago) we’ve had many people over the years tell us they’ve never had a worship experience like ours, it’s far from purely “contemporary.” Yes, we do things non-traditionally, but we also corporately recite the Lord’s Prayer every week, and we close every service with the Doxology. We also follow the lectionary, which is a universal Christian design to help churches work their way through the Bible over three years. So even we, the proverbial pioneers of Christian worship, see the value in grounding our approach in something bigger and deeper.
But we do all of this as a choice. The curtain has been torn. The barriers have been removed. These traditions are a part of all of us; we are the facilitators. Far more important to the future relevance of the Catholic Church than the particular changes to mass is their understanding of who possesses the authority of ministry.
Institutionally speaking, the answer to this question may well be a matter of life and death.
Christian Piatt is an author, editor, speaker, musician and spoken word artist. He co-founded Milagro Christian Church in Pueblo, Colorado with his wife, Rev. Amy Piatt, in 2004. Christian is the creator and editor of “Banned Questions About The Bible” and “Banned Questions About Jesus.” He has a memoir on faith, family and parenting being published in early 2012 called “PREGMANCY: A Dad, a Little Dude and a Due Date.” For more information about Christian, visit www.christianpiatt.com, or find him on Twitter or Facebook.