This December marks the five year anniversary of the first time I ever went to Mass by choice.
I had been to Catholic Masses before…as a baby, for my own baptism and that of my brother. I had been to funeral Masses. A few weddings. I had begrudgingly and awkwardly joined JP’s very devout family at Mass when we visited them so as not to cause ripples.
But there was something very different about the first time I decided I wanted to go to Mass, the first time I chose it for myself.
First of all, the conditions to led me, a once anti-Catholic evangelical, to seek out a Catholic Mass in the first place.
I had gone from a very fervent young Christian, to a disillusioned young adult inside the walls of various Protestant churches over a number of years. I was struggling to reshape the faith of my childhood into something with the depth required for my adult experiences. My own journey of faith began as a strong believer when I was a child and teen, but transitioned to a life as a near-agnostic in my early 20’s. That shift called into serious question the Protestant doctrine of “Once Saved Always Saved” because my own experience proved that one can start out with true belief but deny it later on. Our foray through a variety of denominations brought me to doubt individual interpretation of Scriptiure- if it’s that clear, why do all these churches disagree on issues both big and small? I grew weary of the hyper-emotional structure of worship, and the expectation that I developed equating a good church service with feeling emotionally fulfilled.
To top it off, no one could tell me what the early Church looked like, just as I was beginning to suspect that the Americanized version of Protestant Christianity wasn’t it. I wasn’t sure if what I was looking for even existed, and if it didn’t, I didn’t think I could remain in good conscience a sola-scriptura, once-saved-always-saved, American Protestant for much longer. Or, if this was all that Christianity was, I didn’t know if I would remain a Christian at all.
Cue me, sitting on my sofa, realizing that among these and many other things, I was possibly starting to think like…gulp…a Catholic. I hungered for a connection to the history of my faith. I wanted something deeper than an emotionally-driven experience could offer. I wanted sound theological depth.
I didn’t really know how to bring this up to JP because I had persuaded him away from actively practicing his Catholic faith early in our marriage. But I sprung the question on him one snowy night in downtown Racine while we were out at dinner. I asked, simply: “Do you want to go to Mass?” Shocked, JP shared with me that he had been praying for our unity in private, and had himself felt like he was being led back to the Catholic Church.
We got home from dinner and I sent a message to one of my friends, who I suspected might be Catholic:
The Mass Itself
Two days later, on December 6th, JP and I led our (then) two children through the doors of St. Lucy Parish in Racine, Wisconsin for the 10:30 Mass. Even though I had been to Masses here and there, I didn’t really know what to expect, and I wasn’t entirely sure what to do throughout the different components. But, on that Sunday, my experience in a Catholic church that early Sunday in December was markedly different from any Mass I had been to before.
I had chosen to be there. And, at last, my heart was open to what I might find.
I don’t remember a ton of specifics, other than the distinct feeling that if what I was looking for existed anywhere at all, it likely existed here. The very Church I had sometimes ignored and other times argued against, certain that it was filled with irrelivant, extranneous, anti-Biblical teachings, now might just be my only chance to remain in the Christian faith.
I do remember that there were many families with young children sitting altogether in the pews, which impacted me because at the church we went to a the time, we sent our kids to Sunday School in different rooms. I remember that there wasn’t any sense at all that this service was designed to cater to me, another marked contrast to the hip coffee-house, welcoming committees of the Protestant churches we had recently attended. The music was traditional. The components themselves were somewhat foreign, and yet oddly familiar too. I caught in them some echoes of the fragments that Protestant churches have held onto- Scripture readings, an act of contritian, Communion. But here, inside the Catholic Mass, they weren’t fragments of some lost, greater whole. I remember trying to piece together how it was I grew to be so anti-Catholic in the first place, when it was clear I knew so little about it.
My friend met us after Mass and, after expressing my continued interest, she helped us get connected with RCIA at St. Lucy’s. We enrolled immediately. Inside the walls of that little RCIA room, I asked every question my heart had been wrestling through, knownig that I had to leave everything on the table. Based on what I had seen in multiple Christian churches over nearly 30 years, if the answers couldn’t be found in the Catholic Church, then they probably couldn’t be answered by anyone, and the Christian faith was a sham. One week later, we attended my last church service at the Protestant Church we had been a part of. I have many friends who love Jesus who remain Evangelical, but I could no longer look at it the same way as I once had.
And the rest, as they say, is history. That early December night, where the snow fell like wisps of cotton outside the restaurant window, when I asked JP if he wanted to go to Mass, was less than four months away from the day I’d stand in front of a full Cathedral in St. Paul Minnesota. Easter Vigil, 2016, when I was confirmed into the Catholic Church.
Protestant churches do a really good job of making new guests feel welcome. They greet you, connect you with a small group, offer you donuts and coffee. They give you great concert-quality music and an inspiring message. My first intentional visit to a Catholic Mass didn’t contain any of those things to the same extent I had been used to before. But I didn’t need any of that to be drawn in to the Catholic Church, at least not once my heart was open to it. The Mass drew me in, not with bells and whistles and trends and the promise of friendship with other people like me. It drew me in with beauty, and history, and, above all, rock-solid Truth.