I’m taking a break from writing about my conversion experience to write about my experience today.
I went to Mass today, for the third time ever.
I’ve been to Mass twice before.
My first Mass was with my friend John, a cradle Catholic who came to my Protestant church service in exchange for me going to Mass with him. Mass with John was an absolutely confounding process. We went to a noon-hour Mass at the Catholic college on campus. It was chaotic and crowded, and I don’t like crowds. There were students, professors, and lots of people with babies and strollers. At the time I thought, “Who brings a baby and a stroller to Mass?” In hindsight, I find it compelling and beautiful just how much of a cross-section of humanity was stuffed in that chapel. How much it meant to these people to be there at a mid-week, noon-hour Mass.
During Mass, John whispered tips and explanations in my ear but I still understood very little of what was going on. Mass is like that: confusing for outsiders. There was a lot of sitting, standing, and kneeling. I had to bow, and then cross myself on the forehead, lips, and over my heart. I had to shake people’s hands and say, “Peace be with you.” I had to repeat phrases I didn’t understand.
When it came time to take the Eucharist John told me to cross my arms across my chest and receive a blessing from the Eucharistic minister instead. I didn’t know why, what it meant, or what was going on.
I didn’t feel much after Mass with John. When it was over John and I went to class and the one thing that really stuck with me was watching the priest quickly change out of his vestments, back into ordinary street clothes, and rush out the door before we’d even left.
My second Mass was with some Protestant friends. As a sort of ecumenical gesture we decided to take in a Good Friday service at the same Catholic college on campus. This time the service was in a much bigger, less intimate hall and it was standing room only. I remember even less about this Mass even though it occurred after the one that John and I attended together. I do remember it was odd. There was some level of dramatization, lots of bells, and a general hustle and bustle that I didn’t understand very well. Like my experience with John, Mass the second time was equally incomprehensible.
What my first two experiences at Mass taught me was that it wasn’t designed for outsiders, for non-Catholics. It was highly ritualized, highly religious and to a Protestant raised up in a denomination that feared religion as the end itself rather than a means to an end, I felt uncomfortable.
I’ve come a long way.
This morning I went to my third Mass ever.
The Catholic Mass is designed for insiders, that much I’ve learned. It’s a thrill, a blessing, to take part in an event that the Lord has mercifully called us to, and we’re all called as human beings. But it’s not accessible in the same way that some Protestant churches try to design their Sunday morning services. We used to use the term “seeker-friendly,” that a church service would be friendly and accessible for those that were seeking to know and understand Christianity. Critics, myself included, would argue that watering down church to make it friendly for non-church people meant the church people were never fully or properly edified. If you’re always trying to reach out you lose your focus on reaching in. The argument follows that this kind of church service only resulted in a church that never really got down to the meat and bones of the matter, for fear of becoming exactly what I found in Catholicism: incomprehensible.
Since my first two Masses I’ve learned and grown significantly. I’m enrolled in R.C.I.A. in my local parish. I’ve read a few books and articles on the Mass, watched a number of videos, and listened to countless lectures and seminars on the topic. I understand what it means, and I’ve enjoyed learning more. I’ve come to understand what each aspect of the Mass is for, what it signifies, and what is happening. And it’s incredibly beautiful.
The Mass was incomprehensible to me, as a Protestant, and maybe to many Catholics because I lacked good catechesis; I lacked good education. I hadn’t learned about it so I didn’t understand it, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Being something that needs to be studied and learned about doesn’t make the Mass bad because the Catholic church has a program for designed expressly to educate people who are interested, R.C.I.A, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
My first two Masses taught me that I couldn’t walk in off the street as a Protestant and understand everything that was taking place. True. But my third Mass taught me that once I’ve learned even a little bit about the Mass it can be a wholly breath-taking experience.