When I was a senior in seminary, it was part of our curriculum to worship in different contexts on Sundays. For three years we were assigned specific Lutheran congregations in which to serve, but for our last year we were told to go out and do something different. And when I say “different” I mean, similar to extremely different – from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal. I’m so glad I had that experience, because now as a pastor and pastor’s wife, I’ve been pretty much in the same buildings for 9+ years and worshiping Lutheran for almost twenty. I’m thankful I had the chance to “church hop” because it allowed me to see the richness in other traditions, while at the same time coming to appreciate why the Lutheran Church is the right place for me.
I recently attended a Roman Catholic funeral mass, and that seminary experience came back to me. I was there to support a parishioner whose adult daughter had died from a short illness. It was truly heartbreaking to see the widower and his teenage sons and my parishioner saying goodbye. It’s a common saying but all too terribly true that a parent should never have to bury their child.
Of course this is a generalization, but I love the atmosphere of Roman Catholic churches. Although this congregation had a modern building in the shape of a semicircle, it still retained many of the classic elements and “feeling” of a typical Roman Catholic Church. By “feeling” I mean a sense of quiet, contemplation, meditation and prayer. I love the sense of awe that my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have for the space for worship. I think it stems from the presence of the tabernacle or monstrance, and the confessionals. At any time you enter a Roman Catholic church at least one sacrament is currently “happening” – in the tabernacle/monstrance – and one “could” be happening in the confessional. While it’s true that other traditions have an understanding of being respectful in “God’s house,” Roman Catholic folks have a greater sense of “holy space” than most protestants. And that’s too bad for us. I think we would do well to have a healthier sense of awe for where the Word and Sacraments happen. I know that Church is more than a building, indeed not a building at all, but the space we set aside for worship is special – whether it’s a building called a church, or the living room in someone’s home – and we should treat it as such. I almost always have a feeling of peace, and an openness to prayer and contemplation when I visit a Roman Catholic congregation, which is a beautiful thing. Along with the sense of holy space is the Roman Catholic regard for the liturgy. While I’m comfortable worshiping in any setting, including hands in the air “alleluia” services, a more formal liturgy is where I feel most at home. I appreciate the flow of worship that’s been handed down to us from generations past, and I’m glad the the Lutheran church has retained the ancient pattern, so much so that when I’m at a Roman Catholic mass I barely miss a beat. But… there’s something in the way, an invisible wall, not between me and the holy space or the liturgy, but between me and the institution – as a protestant, as a woman and as a clergywoman – that keeps me from feeling fully welcomed and included.
Here comes the part where I “appreciate why the Lutheran Church is the right place for me.” (Let me make it clear that I don’t write any of this to offend or attempt to convert my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. These are only my thoughts on why I couldn’t be Roman Catholic, not on why you shouldn’t be. If you’re at home in a Roman Catholic congregation then God bless you.)
I was glad that my parishioner felt she could receive communion. I know her well and I know communion is a great comfort to her, but I also know that she shouldn’t have received, and I felt excluded as I sat in the pew while others went forward. I could’ve presented myself for communion, and the priest would have been none the wiser, but that would not have been right. When you’re in someone else’s house you abide by their rules, you don’t sneak around to break them.
There are two basic reasons why I couldn’t present myself for communion at this funeral.
- Lutherans have a different understanding of Jesus’ presence in the elements. We believe that Christ is present “in, with and under” the bread and wine – the elements don’t change, but Christ is present with them – a mystery we can’t explain. We do NOT believe that the bread and wine are substantially changed. In the Roman Catholic faith one MUST believe in this doctrine of transubstantiation in order to receive communion. And I don’t.
- We also have a different understanding of what makes one worthy to receive communion. In the Roman Catholic faith, one must be in a state of grace – in other words, free of mortal sin. For the Roman Catholic, the Eucharist only forgives venial sins – mortal sins must be confessed prior to receiving communion. In the Lutheran faith one can NEVER be worthy – it is precisely the recognition of our unworthiness that makes us worthy – the sick who need the doctor, the sinner who needs forgiving. ALL our sins are forgiven in the Sacrament – Jesus didn’t say “for the forgiveness of the little sins only,” he said, “for the forgiveness of sin” – period. The bigger our sins the more we need communion. Since I haven’t been absolved through the Roman Catholic sacrament of confession I also cannot receive communion.
[That said, there are extremely rare instances when a non-Roman Catholic may receive communion from a priest, but before they can they must “manifest Catholic faith in these sacraments…” (Code of Canon Law, CIC 844 § 4). In other words, the person isn’t Roman Catholic, but believes what the Church teaches, so probably IS Roman Catholic in their hearts but hasn’t had the chance or opportunity to convert.]
The other thing that makes me feel unwelcome and exluded, and it’s a big one, is my biology. As a woman, I have a very hard time tolerating an all male clergy. I have a very hard time tolerating the positions on separate gender “gifts” that the Roman Catholic Church puts forth. We can have a good conversation about whether the few passages of Scripture that exclude women from leadership were meant for “all time” or just for “that time,” but for the Roman Catholic Church it’s also an issue of tradition – a tradition that has been declared infallible and cannot be changed. I’m sure we’ll see married priests at some point, but I don’t think the Roman Catholic Church will EVER admit women to the priesthood – indeed, church teaching says it couldn’t couldn’t ordain women even IF it wanted to (there are many reasons not just biblical – you can do a google search on this if you want to go deeper). This is one of the many reasons I appreciate being in a church tradition that can change certain things, even BIG ones, as long as the message of the gospel remains (because THAT is the one thing that never changes). Of course, this means that my tradition discusses, studies, debates, fights, discusses, studies, debates and fights some more about changes – and sometimes things get messy. It’s no fun, and it’s certainly not perfect or infallible. But I’ll take it over the hierarchy/patriarchy any day. That’s just me.
So as I sat and prayed in this funeral mass, all these thoughts were swirling in my mind and my emotions ranged from peace to anger, from contentment to frustration. I was grateful for the opportunity to immerse myself in the sacred space – a space that was holy for me, and that I could feel enveloped by that holiness. I’m also grateful to return to my own space, where I might have to work a little harder to experience that same sense of awe and holiness, but where I also feel completely welcomed and wholly valued – not for my body parts (or lack thereof) or my spotless life – but because I’m forgiven.
***Again, these are just my thoughts and feelings and not meant to offend or convert. I’m only saying what is right for me.