The Church is Universal, And It’s Not

The Church is Universal, And It’s Not December 2, 2014

Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito.
Photo Credit: Raffaele Esposito.

As a Protestant converting to Catholicism the idea that the Catholic Church is universal has enormous appeal. The idea that I can attend the same Mass in Waterloo, Toronto, Boston, or South Africa is incredibly attractive. The Church, universal in that sense, is pretty incredible to a Protestant like me.

At the same time, the Catholic Church isn’t the same everywhere and as I learn more about unique identities within the Church I’m glad for this, too.

Let me tackle the first thing first.

When my wife and I traveled to the Maritimes with some friends several years ago we ended up looking for somewhere to go on a Sunday morning. The  four of us attended a non-denominational church together in our home town. Before the era of smartphones or widely available Wi-Fi we were stuck with the phonebook, of all things, and a list of potential churches to visit that morning.

How does a Protestant go about looking for a church to attend while they’re on vacation? That was our dilemma, and we didn’t really know. We decided to chose a ‘Baptist’ church because several in the group had attended Baptist churches growing up and that seemed a safe choice. Of course, without knowing their statement of faith and what they believed about certain crucial elements of Christianity it was impossible to make a safe guess at what the church would be like when we arrived. But, we chose a Baptist church and drove into town.

The church ended up being a tiny, independent Baptist church with what might’ve been some pretty out-lying theology. My lasting memory of the experience was the minister, in uncomfortably heavy black boots, asking if any of us played piano. None of us did. We sang, with the four other parishoners in the small church, acapella.

This experience, in hindsight, highlights for me something incredible about the Catholic Church. The Mass, the central celebration of the Church, is the same everywhere.

Not only is that practically helpful and makes traveling a lot simpler but more importantly it’s a beautiful, unifying thought. We are all taking part in the same Mass, saying the same words, in our own languages. All over the world.

At the same time, even in my relatively limited experience within the Catholic churches in my area I can see that while same in form and formula there’s a lot that’s different. And that’s a good thing, too.

Here is an example.

In my parish, where I’m enrolled in the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA), the program is led by a nun and three older ladies. The sponsors are all retirement-aged. The priest is not involved in any active role.

At times this is disappointing to me. The program, for the most part, seems stagnant. Most weeks I’m finding that whatever the topic is about I already have more information and have read more than the presenter. Like my wife lovingly says, I seem to know more than most Catholics about their faith—including those teaching us—and this is sometimes disappointing.

Disappointing because RCIA is an incredible, robust program in theory. Disappointing because at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Lansing, Michigan the RCIA program is phenomenal. It’s spearheaded and delivered by three University-educated priests who are dynamic, witty, and well-read. Their program is nearly two hours of rigorous practical and academic theology with lots of solid, thoughtful questions from the group of candidates. I know because I’ve watched their whole RCIA, last year, online. It was incredible.

But it’s different. My sleepy little parish is different than the dynamic community in Lansing.

And, I guess, what I’m getting at is the same goes for people’s experience of the Church.

If I went through RCIA and remained in my parish, and only in my parish, I could easily grow jaded in my faith. I could easily miss out on a more intellectual experience of my faith, which is more a kin to my personality. I could begin to go through the motions. I could easily slip in and slip out and not get involved on a deeper level—because there isn’t a lot to get involved with. Someone, anyone in my parish, could easily go through Catholic life without truly understanding their faith, even after going through RCIA.

If this is where I started and this is where I ended off, I don’t know how much I’d enjoy being a Catholic.

But that’s just one experience of the Catholic faith, and there are many.

The Church is universal, and that’s a good thing, but it’s also not and that’s good too. The Church, and churches, are made up of people and programs and the inertia that it takes to change. It can be messy and disappointing but I keep coming back to the same thought, over and over again. If this is the Church that Jesus meant to establish then surely He’s working through it.

And I might not feel like a certain parish is a good fit, and it might not be. And sometimes I should stay, and change it from the inside, and maybe other times not. I don’t know, not all the way. But I do know that I love the universality of the Church and I love that each church, each parish, can be different.

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