by Bob Lupton, May 2011 The liturgy of worship in the Catholic Church mass is about to change. Not very big changes, a few words here and there, nothing drastic that would be too upsetting to most worshippers. But any change in the Catholic Church is big change. Back in 1960’s the Second Vatican Council took on the challenge of bringing the church into the modern age. Lay people were invited to participate in worship, contemporary music was introduced and Latin was replaced by vernacular languages. As Pope John said, “It was time to open the windows of the Church to let in some fresh air.” It seems that in haste, however, some of the Latin-to-English scripture translations were not as accurate as they could have been. No major errors, just a few fine points. But Rome has decided that it is time to correct these deficiencies and return to a more faithful, word-for-word Biblical translation. This means that some of the terminology in the mass will change.
Peggy, who is a life-long Catholic, was eager to attend an orientation class at her church to hear first-hand what changes to expect and the rationale behind these changes. I agreed to go with her. The classroom filled with 20 or so church members, folks neither of us knew, mostly gray hairs, all curious to know how their predictable, well-practiced worship was about to be altered. A retired school teacher moderated the session. A text and a workbook were handed out to each attendee. We watched a professionally produced video featuring an energetic young theologian who explained with passion and clarity the Biblical basis for the mass and the importance of faithful adherence to the original texts. The meeting was then opened for discussion.
No one voiced any concerns about the coming changes. Worshippers could adjust just fine, it was agreed. Memorizing the new wording would take some time but the changes were for all the right reasons. What ignited an emotional reaction, however, was the disturbing comment by one of the members that a majority of Catholics no longer believe that the bread and wine are the actual body and blood of Christ. “80% of Catholics surveyed said it was symbolic,” the man sitting two chairs down from me said. Unbelievable! Heads wagged in disbelief. A lady across the table challenged the validity of the research. Another said there must be something wrong with the way the survey questions were worded. No one wanted to believe it. “We have failed to teach our children the catechism,” lamented one distressed grandmother. How could this theological bedrock have eroded so badly in a single generation? An absolute tragedy, everyone agreed.
The conversation then shifted from Catholics who no longer believe in the doctrine of trans-substantiation to Protestants who never have embraced it. “They say they believe the Bible but they pick and chose what they want it to say,” a man with a New Jersey accent accused. The guy two chairs down from me chimed in: “They’ve got two verses they really believe,” and gave the scripture references, “and all the rest is negotiable, open for anyone’s interpretation.” A frail, ancient woman who was scribbling notes asked for the two passages again. The case against Protestant heretics grew more intense as others around the table added fuel to the fire. And as the flames of indictment leapt higher, so grew the resolve to hold tenaciously to the historic truth. And get more serious about teaching the catechism to our children – rather, our grandchildren.
Peggy glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. I knew she was worried, afraid not that I would be offended by the Protestant bashing but that I would say something that would “out” me as one of those damnable heretics. I sensed her concern but decided to let her squirm. This was just too much fun to end it prematurely. How often does a person get to enjoy listening to uncensored, insider prejudices of unsuspecting, self-righteous people – anonymously! I concealed my smile.
As I listened to the group assemble a “straw man” out of assorted rumors, half-truths, and misperceptions – a caricature of a Protestant that they could easily blow away with their truth – a curious collection of distant memories began to surface in my mind. Childhood recollections from my self-righteous holiness church…sermons about “those superstitious Catholics” who were duped into believing all sorts of falsehoods…luscious discussions with my Protestant friends about the rumored immorality of priests and nuns…comparative religion studies at my conservative Christian Bible college that offered convincing proof of the errors of other denominations… In a bizarre way, I knew these people around this table, recognized their voices! These were some of the same actors who fashioned the theological platform for my own formative years, gave me a secure doctrinal perch from which I learned to judge the rest of the world. These roles were familiar – the self-important guy on my right with all the “documented facts” about the heretics – yes, I knew that voice. And the confident, well-spoken man across the table who articulated chapter-and-verse evidence of the indisputable rightness of the church’s position. And, yes, the sweet, mature women whose sincerity reassured the younger members that the godly wisdom of the leaders was trustworthy. In the strangest way, I was an insider. I knew the drill.
I stifled my smile until Peggy and I were out of the room and walking toward the car. “Can’t wait ‘til we get to the car,” Peggy whispered. She was now smiling too. As soon as the car doors slammed shut, we both burst into laughter until tears rolled down our cheeks. “I was so afraid you were going to ‘out’ yourself by challenging some of those comments,” she said. “Would have changed the whole tone of the discussion,” I agreed. I told her how familiar these people were to me, how they mirrored characters in my early religious upbringing, how similar was the process of defending our different brands of Christianity. Peggy recounted how uncomfortable she felt in a women’s Bible study she joined at my Presbyterian church when anti-Catholic sentiments surfaced. “And they knew I was a Catholic!” she exclaimed.
Peggy marveled that I was not upset by the whole affair. And I admitted that there was a time when I would have been. But today I could be pleasantly amused in my anonymity because I didn’t have a dog in the fight. My theology has grown simpler over the years, less encumbered with doctrinal non-negotiables to defend. Having journeyed alongside so many diverse believers with so many divergent doctrines, and having witnessed the genuine quality of so many various faith-walks, I have come to accept that in the end there are very few issues worth fighting over. I can leave the theological heavy lifting to the theologians and be content in a simple belief that God is good and wants us to be kind to each other. My standard response these days when I encounter devout people clinging tenaciously to a doctrinal position is: “could be.”