Last week, after speaking at a conference in Tampa, my friend Carol and I were walking through the business district and came upon a beautiful, old Catholic church.
“Let’s go in!” she said. I agreed.
Carol is Catholic. I’m not. I do love old churches and when visiting New York or Europe I’ve been in many historic churches to stand reverently in the beauty, soak up the generations of spiritual energy, say a prayer and light a candle.
The Sacred Heart Church, a magnificent granite and marble structure built in 1905, sits among the modern glass high rise office buildings. The steps lead from the busy sidewalk to large wooden doors. Inside, the sun illuminated the seventy beautiful stained glass windows, surrounding a dome that reached toward heaven. The solid oak pews, porcelain tiles and marble alter gave a worshipful and majestic feeling.
It was silent although several people were scattered across pews in the sanctuary. Each sitting alone; reverently. Business people on their lunch hour, I assumed.
Carol headed up toward the front where large red candle holders were on one side of the alter. Blue on the other. I walked to the smaller clear candle holder display at the back where we’d entered. I lit a candle, said a prayer and picked up a card in the stand nearby.
When I looked up from reading the prayer on the card I could see that a few more people were coming into the sanctuary and a man in a robe was heading toward the front.
“Are they having a service?” I wondered as I looked around for Carol.
I spotted her on a pew across the aisle. She looked up, mouthed, “They’re doing mass,” and nodded her head in the direction of the door.
I shrugged. She nodded. I joined her on the bench.
I’ve only been to a Catholic mass once before when visiting some friends. The ceremonial kneeling, standing, sitting and responsive readings where everyone seems to know what to do are soothing. I watched Carol and followed along.
The fellow in the robes, whom I assume was a priest, read from the Bible; Luke chapter 6, verses 36-38 and talked briefly about God’s mercy and not judging others. We stood again, recited the Lord’s Prayer and people went forward to accept communion.
I didn’t go, although Carol said I could. It just didn’t feel right. I grew up Baptist and we take communion occasionally after having been baptized. I didn’t want to be irreverent by taking Catholic communion when I’m not Catholic. (I’m sure the one large metal chalice they were all drinking from was blessed to prevent spreading germs, right?) One gentleman to my left didn’t go up either. He seemed to know when to stand, sit and kneel. A young couple just behind me came in late and seemed to be observing as was I.
As we headed down the big marble stairs exiting the church Carol commented that I knew the words to the Lord’s Prayer and asked how that service was different from what I grew up attending.
Oh, how to explain? Where to start?
Carol is an Italian Catholic from New York. I’m from Georgia and my family is southern way back to before the civil war so I’m most likely some sort of Irish, English, Scottish blend.
I grew up in an independent, fundamental, Bible-Believing Baptist church with lots of singing, preaching, praising Jesus and the preacher running in the aisles shoutin’ about sin.
I attempted a comparison of the two styles of worship.
Carol said that once when working with an African-American group she went to church with them. There was lots of singing, shouting and preaching. She said they all brought dinner and ‘church’ lasted all day.
I said that we dismissed about lunchtime, depending on how long-winded the preacher was that day and had dinner on our own–except for homecoming and all-day singings. Of course, we came back for Training Union and evening services so it might as well have lasted all day.
Carol was excited to tell her family that she went to Mass. (Apparently that’s not a regular occurrence.) I was happy for the opportunity to have a time of reverence, prayer and an inspirational message on mercy and being nonjudgmental.
I’m happy that what started as stepping inside a beautiful church ended up in us accidentally attending Mass.