Got a pleasant email from a reader who had some questions for me about what Catholics do and do not believe. Growing up, this person heard some odd stories about Catholics, including the interesting tidbit that we had orgies at Holy Mass which, to this reader’s credit, was not believed. I was really happy to answer the questions put forth, and the reader suggested I blog the answers, because others might have the same questions.
So, in the interest of furthering understanding between Catholics and Protestants, at a time when more and more folks seem receptive to learning about each other, here goes. At the outset though, let me say, I’m just an average Catholic. I am no expert in anything, and I am not inviting lengthy debate. I’m just answering questions.
First, I understand what you are talking about, with wanting to have some sort of sense that scriptural interpretation comes down to more than what one ‘feels.” Scripture is meant to be a cohesive, coherent and comprehensive message. While it’s true that the Holy Spirit can certainly inspire anyone, at any time, with personal revelation, there is also a “seamless whole” to it that really defies being interpreted church-by-church. Orgies at Mass? Hardly. Truth is, most Catholics at mass are very quiet and barely acknowledge each other, which is something that many evangelicals find more than a little odd, because it doesn’t seem much like fellowship. But Fellowship is more than being gregarious and happy to see each other and “sharing the Lord” in a talkative and social way – it’s also giving people room and privacy until we “share in the Lord” in Holy Communion.
Most Catholics think of the interior of the church as a sacred place (especially if the Tabernacle is there) and lots of people either before or after Mass like to pray silently, either to examine their conscience, or just to talk to Jesus, and so inside the church is generally pretty quiet. You will not walk into a Catholic church and have someone say, “Well, hi, Welcome! What’s your name?” Rather, if you are noticed at all, you will be given lots of space, because no one will want to intrude upon you, assuming you are preparing to Commune.
1) Do Catholic Churches have Bible study where they actually read Scripture? (I have always heard that Catholics don’t actually read the Bible for themselves)
Most Catholic parishes DO have scripture study but it’s not what you are used to, in terms of an ongoing, every week, regular session, year in and out. Most parishes usually hold 6 or 8 week sessions – sometimes 12 week – where they explore one particular book of the bible, and this will be done several times a year. For example, my parish has already looked at Luke. They’re going to study Mark later this year, after Easter, and there is going to be a special 4 week class on OT women.
But I think it is the rare Catholic parish that has just regular, every Wednesday Scripture study, and there is a reason for that. I don’t mean to sound smug or “superior,” here, so please don’t misunderstand, and I also have absolutely NO intention of getting into an endless loop of debate about sola scriptura. Those debates go on for ages, and wear me out.
Thing is, Evangelicals have only the Word, and so it is for them their main focus; they have no “other” means of “getting” God, no sacraments, no sensory prayer, no visual prayer (because prayer is – I know that YOU know – much more than reading scripture and praying -it is also losing yourself in wonder and adoration and contemplation) and they do not have the Mass or the Holy Eucharist.
Catholics have the bells and smells – the opportunity to worship with their whole bodies and senses, but they also have the Word and the Eucharist (or the Word Made Flesh). And the Word Made Flesh – Christ physically with us, is the source and summit of our faith.
I always like to think about how Jesus said he would be with us “always, even to the end of the world” and how, while he likely meant “end times,” he also likely meant “to all the ends of the earth.” I like to reflect that ever since the time of the Apostles, Christ HAS been with us, fully present, in the Eucharist, hour after hour, from time zone to time zone, every day and night, that when morning Mass ends here in the Northeast, it begins in Chicago, when it ends in Chicago, it begins in the mountains…when it ends there, it begins on the West coast, and so on, all around the world. Staggering. Even more staggering to think of all the hours of Morning and Evening Prayer that are also traveling around the world, hour by hour, every single day, sanctifying time and sort of wrapping the whole planet in prayer! :-)
Anyway, since we have Mass every day, rather than once or twice a week, we have exposure to scripture every day. A Catholic who goes to daily Mass will, every three years, have heard the entire bible read aloud (minus all the “begats” and such). Every day there is an OT or NT reading, a psalm and a gospel reading, and they move forward successively, they are not just random. Then on Sunday’s we have an OT, and NT reading a psalm and gospel.
It’s always been interesting to me to hear (and I’ve heard it, believe me) that Catholics don’t “study scripture.” Have I, (and I am not an exceptional Catholic, believe me) struck you as lacking in knowledge of Scripture?
I may not be able to give you the chapter and verse off the top of my head, but I can discuss scripture intelligently, and more importantly, I can find ways in which to apply it every day, to virtually any circumstance of my life, which to me seems more valuable than being able to say exactly ‘where’ in the book it is ! I once had a Protestant say to me, “for a Catholic, your knowledge of scripture is formidable…” I know she thought she was complimenting me so I just smiled, but the fact is, most Catholics know more scripture than they even realize. We just come at it differently. It’s more like we just get to absorb it with the Mass, as opposed to “working hard to learn it.” So, yes. We have scripture, we study scripture – some of us more, some of us less – and those who attend daily mass (or at least read the readings for the day) have the Word of God every single day.
2) Do they play that Praise music?
I know that this is an important question, and not at all frivolous. Music can really enhance worship and make it that much more fruitful, or it can simply be a noisy intrusion into prayer. And as St. Augustine (or was it Thomas Aquinas) said, “he who sings, prays twice.”
I’m not sure what you mean by Praise music, but modern Catholic music, for the most part, is pretty awful. Most Catholics are pretty unhappy with it, and things are in motion to change it. We used to have the most gorgeous music ever written. “Panis Angelicus” (bread
of angels) “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” etc, etc…then in the 1970’s heady with the idea of reform, too many parish liturgists and musicians completely ignored the Vatican II documents that specifically stated that while newer, modern music should be introduced in worship, it was to be integrated with the old music. The modernists ran wild and I recall beign a little kid and learning Tantum Ergo (Down in Adoration Falling) one week, and hearing “Blowin’ in the Wind” sung at mass the next. (Shudder). Catholic music has a long way to go to get back to being great. We do use some classic Protestant hymns, though, and most of our music is based on scripture.
Most parishes offer several masses each weekend, and usually each Mass has different music. A large parish may have a “youth” mass, with guitars and flutes and saxophones and the like – and a “choir” mass with a more traditional sound. You will very likely NOT see very much in the way of exceptional musicianship. In my parish, the Saturday evening mass has a fantastic pianist and cantor. The Sunday choir Mass has a respectable organist…but the youth mass has a keyboardist who sounds like she is playing with oven mitts on her hands. This, I guess, is where we learn charity! Ultimately, we are not at Mass for the music – it is not the priority. We’re there to share in the Supper of the Lamb. Scott Hahn’s book, The Lamb’s Supper is an excellent exposition of that whole idea.
3)How do you deal with the fact that the head of your Chuch is a foreigner? I admit that I REALLY admire the present Pope despite his occasional Socialist outbursts–but I am afraid of future foreign Popes. What do you think?
I have to admit to having found this question very surprising. You know what…it has NEVER occured to me as being remotely significant that the pope is not an American. Or that the pope never has been, and likely never will be an American, at least not in my lifetime. He is there for ALL the people. His nationality just doesn’t even come into it.
I guess because it is a “global” church, because it’s ROOTS are not in America, but in the Holy Land and Rome, and because, when considering the history of the world America is the youngest piece of it, it’s simply never occurred to me. In fact, the only purely “American” church I can think of (meaning with no relation, whatsoever with the Taproot of Christianity, which is the Roman church) is the Mormon church.
Christianity is not an “American” invention. Its roots are, as you say, “foreign. ‘ I guess to my mind, looking at both the history of the world and the history of worship, itself, it simply makes sense to me that the pope could come from anywhere in the world, and that he would likely come from a country with a longer “Catholic” pedigree than the US. Polish folks are old, old Catholics, as are Italians, of course. It’s quite likely that the next pope will come from a missionary country, from Africa or Asia, or from Eastern Europe – places where the faith is not “old” but still clung to – where rampant materialism hasn’t completely distorted things, and where there is a vibrant energy. Those are also places where the church has been most recently oppressed and ,as you know, wherever the church is oppressed, she is also the most alive.
I don’t think you could say JPII has “socialist” outbursts. He is a man who was a slave laborer under the Nazis and a victim of oppression under the Communists, and was – along with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, instrumental in ending the cold war, as Thatcher and Reagan themselves would say.
Some members of the curia speaking as “the Vatican” say some pretty stupid, and yes, leftist things, and often people hear “Vatican” and think things are coming directly from JPII’s mouth. That’s not always the case.
It IS another reason why the next pope will likely not be a Western European. They’re the most liberal folks in the church! :-)
You can take comfort in a few things: 1) Most of the Cardinal electors have been put into place by JPII and so it is likely (but by no means guaranteed) that the next pope will be somewhat in line with him, and not a big “revolutionary.” 2) We really do believe – even the most cynical Catholic believes – that the pope is chosen by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They haven’t always been great men, but they’ve been men who moved the church wherever it needed to go (for the most part). In the end, God has His plan and man doesn’t impede what must go forward. If you can believe that the HS has a hand in the choosing of the pope that might be helpful to you. It is for us!
The thing you have to remember, though, is that Catholicism is not really a “denomination.” As a Protestant, you are able to jump from Assemblies of God to Southern Baptist to Pentecostal to Evangelical churches pretty much at whim. If you don’t like what one church is doing, or what a pastor or advisory board is saying, you can move to another and still be part of the Protestant community. We can’t do that. Catholic is Catholic, and in our case, even if we have annoying, distracted bishops, or priests who are all-too-human in their faults, even if we have some lay ministers who have what I call “bunker mentalities” (they guard their ministries like junkyard dogs and make it hard for others to join in), we can’t “shop around.” And most of us wouldn’t, anyway, because we know that we’ll find essentially the same thing, parish-to-parish – some great priests, completely alive in the Holy Spirit, and some who are toddling along, doing their best. We’re all the same. None of us are perfect!
I hope this has helped in some little way. If you are, as you suggest, seriously considering learning more, can I suggest that you go at this prayerfully, and allow yourself to be led wherever God wishes to lead you, Catholic or otherwise.
And it might be a good idea, if you want, to pop into a Catholic church from time to time, when there isn’t a funeral or something going on, and just SIT in the quiet. One of the best things about the Catholic church is that – usually – the doors are open every day, and anyone is free to come in and sit…and if you’re in a parish that hasn’t banished the Tabernacle into a side room, if you sit there, you will suddenly realize that you are not sitting there alone. You WILL feel the Presence; it’s unmistakable.
I know of a Jewish lady who comes and sits in a church in Forest Hills every week. She likes to come and sit, and read the bulletin and just think a bit. It’s a good place to sit and think, because even if you’re alone…you’re not!
I hope nothing I have written has offended you. I surely have not meant to be offensive in any way, but if I have, please forgive me. G’night.