I grew up between two worlds. My extended family, all of Irish and Italian descent, are Roman Catholics. Their religious identification is as important to them as their nationalities. This is why, in the mid-seventies when my parents, newly married, became swept up in the Jesus movement and converted away from the faith of their families and into some amorphous form of Protestantism, it was a scandal. Better to be a non-practicing Catholic than a charismatic Christian.
Though the majority of my young life was lived in evangelical churches, there were always those visits to Nana's house. If my sister and I happened to be staying over on a Sunday, it was Sunday mass for us. There, in that alien world of incense smells, aging congregants, and, of course, the ever-present visage of Christ (still) on the cross, I felt both fascinated and confused. I was interested in my grandparents' faith, but also certain it was not as true as mine.
No Catholic, I thought, could ever really be a true Christian. Armed with my utter lack of knowledge about Church history, I came to believe that the way my community worshipped—meeting wherever space was available, singing, clapping, dancing, speaking in tongues—was the way of the early church. Catholicism turned the free and spirited practice of Christianity into a ritualistic Religion.
Occasionally, around Catholic friends and family I would show this bias, which I no doubt learned from the pulpit. A friend in Cub Scouts, upon finding out that I was not a Catholic, asked what I was. In our working class town, and in his short life, he had never met a non-Catholic. I explained proudly that I was a Christian. He countered by saying that he too was a Christian, something he undoubtedly learned from CCD classes. Sensitive, even then, to his feelings, I tried to temper my answer. "Well, not really," I think I said.
I remember asking my mom if Catholics go to heaven. She may have hesitated a moment, herself much more entrenched in each world than I'd ever have the opportunity to be. I'm sure she said yes, but there were issues.
Idol worship was an issue. Confession was an issue. Wine for communion was an issue. And then, there was the Pope.
Obsessed with the End Times, and fed a steady diet of Frank Peretti novels, I knew enough to suspect the Pope. The photo of Pope John Paul II that hung on the wall in my grandmother's bedroom always felt a bit insidious.
So, when media attention began to focus on Michele Bachmann's former church and their belief that the Pope is the Anti-Christ, I flashed back to my childhood, to the churches that met in warehouses, to the certainty I once possessed about basically everything.
Over time, I've come to reconcile the two worlds I grew up in. A few years back I wrote a story for Religion Dispatches about a trend of evangelicals converting to Catholicism, and it ended up hitting close to home. I found myself considering whether or not this would eventually become my fate as well. I know a particular set of grandparents who would be particularly happy. Thus far, however, the Episcopal Church is as close as my wife and I have come.
The scandal of Michele Bachmann, the Pope, and the Anti-Christ (punchline, anyone?) will dissipate. This won't become Bachmann's Reverend Wright Moment, as some in the media predicted. She formerly separated from her old church and indicated, explicitly, that she doesn't think the Pope is the Anti-Christ. But this is a good moment for reflection to consider the ways that, even within Christianity, different denominations demonize one another—to say nothing about the way it happens with much more severity across religions.
It is in the places that we distrust and judge one another, I think, that we should be looking for the Anti-Christ.
7/19/2011 4:00:00 AM