Our church doesn’t officially celebrate Christmas. I’ve heard of other churches that choose not to as well, most citing pagan or consumerist holiday origins as the reason, but ours shies away from it for the opposite reason: it’s too religious. More specifically, it’s too Catholic.

I sympathize with their need to differentiate themselves from the national religion. Here in Italy, the Pope is held up as truth incarnate, and the small Brethren congregation with which we share Sunday mornings is anxious to dispel the notion of religious royalty. In fact, we don’t even have a paid pastor. All church members are seen as equal participants among each other and with God, and the inclusive environment is incredibly welcome for those like me who run screaming from the word “orthodoxy.”

I’m not sure how welcome a Catholic visitor would feel though. While it isn’t often said aloud, the general consensus seems to be that Catholics do not know the real God; they base their lives on superstition, worship idols, and enslave themselves to greed (the clergy) or fear (the parishioners). They need to be saved just as badly as Buddhists or even Wiccans do.

However, I simply can’t make the stereotype match up with the Catholics I personally know. It’s easy enough to say a certain denomination (or religion, depending on your viewpoint) has it all wrong, but can I honestly make that verdict about my Catholic friend who prays regularly for me and launches heart-to-hearts about our life’s passions? What about my ex-fundamentalist friend who finds solace from her oppressive past at Mass every week? What about the devout family friends who uprooted their lives to keep a mentally disabled relative from losing her inheritance?

How can I say that I, with my ever-evolving doubts and struggles, have exclusive rights to the God we all seek?

I twice attended Mass when I was living in the States, and both times, I stayed conspicuously in my seat while the rest of the church filed to the front for the Eucharist. I reasoned that I was merely an onlooker of a foreign religious ritual and that participating would be on par with apostasy. (Never mind that my own church’s monthly communion service was essentially the same thing, give or take a priest.) If I were to go back now, though, it wouldn’t be as a tourist. Rather, I’d go as a fellow believer, doubter, stumbler, and seeker. And while I probably wouldn’t agree on a lot of doctrinal points, and while the reverent liturgy of the service might chafe my nonconformist sensibilities, and while my current church could have some strong opinions over it (thankfully, we don’t do excommunication), the slot vacated by my superiority complex would be just about the right size for a concept called loving my neighbors… and maybe even learning from them too.

Rally to Restore Unity

[Joining the Rally to Restore Unity going on this week on Rachel Held Evans’ blog. Want to play along?]

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  1. Fascinating! I’ve never considered what it would be like to be a non-Catholic living in Italy, actually going to another church. I was an anti-Catholic evangelical when I visited Rome back in my college days, but that was just a day and I was too rushed to think of much except how nice the art was.

    (and it was my Catholic friends sticking by my in some really hard times, that convinced me that maybe they were Christians after all!)

  2. This was the first post to bring me to tears. So beautiful.

    AND – I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE your sign!

  3. “Rather, I’d go as a fellow believer, doubter, stumbler, and seeker.”


    My mom was raised Catholic and vehemently turned protestant in her late teens, partly as a protest against her abusive father.

    You can imagine my upbringing. There was even a book in the Christian bookstore my mom worked in that explained why the Catholic church was the great harlot in Revelation.

    I too have overcome all that to believe that Catholics can be Christians too. [ironic smile]

    In fact, I may have more in common with my Catholic friends than my Evangelical ones.

    There is more that ties us together than separates us. I think we will all recognize each other in the end.

  4. why, do tell, am catholic’s not christian? how is proclaiming, with a smile, that my faith is any less genuine than your, christian?
    where, indeed, is the unity?

  5. Sadly, if the Catholic church you were attending was one that was in obedience to the Pope, they would not want you to receive communion. It would violate official church teaching. The Eucharist as celebrated in a Roman Catholic church is only for Roman Catholics and other churches in communion with Rome.

    But you make a good point, that we should not be dismissive of certain types or groups, but rather we need to be open to knowing and loving all people. Then we can be surprised in so many wonderful ways.

  6. beautiful, dear friend.

  7. ” The Eucharist as celebrated in a Roman Catholic church is only for Roman Catholics and other churches in communion with Rome.”

    That’s true, and I had to wrestle with that, because it seems exclusive and excluding. From the other side, though, Catholics believe waaaaay differently about the Eucharist than other churches. Receiving communion would be announcing that you believed what the CC teaches, which you wouldn’t, and which would be a public statement of a unity that just isn’t there. There is a statement in one of the pew books that says this, and it also says that Catholics pray that a true unity will some day be brought about.

    So how do we find unity even with differences? Faking it won’t cut it.

  8. I know, I was Catholic for most of my life. I understand and respect the Catholic Church’s position. I still find it somewhat sad because I think the Lord’s Table is one place where believers in the Lord Jesus should be able to come together. But I don’ say that with disrespect.

  9. I am so glad that, as a teenager, I ended up dating a Catholic boy. That meant I eventually went to church with him and was able to see, with my own eyes and discerning heart, that nobody was worshiping Mary or praying to idols or anything like that. The services I went to were very warm and inviting. Plus, the priest had a delightful Irish accent. (Mississippi is FULL of Irish priests.) I think this a great post about how you can find a church home that fulfills many of your spiritual needs but doesn’t line up with every single belief. I struggle with that!

    And it’s not just our Catholic brothers and sisters who limit who can take communion – our little Missionary Baptist church did not allow anyone who was not a member of our particular congregation to participate in the Lord’s Supper. That is one thing I so love about the Methodist church, that everyone is welcome to the table, even children.

  10. favorite part ever: “loving my neighbors… and maybe even learning from them too.”
    well, one of my favorite parts:)

  11. Isn’t it funny that the Catholic Church I visited is what brought me back to church when I was younger and had no kids. I had sworn off church because the church I attended while growing up was just so “churchy” and conservative, and meaningless. I didn’t connect there at all. When I went to St. Joan’s I was home. Now, this catholic church is LIBERAL to the point of radical. I didn’t agree with all of the things I heard, not by a long shot. But, everyone was welcome to everything, catholic or not. Parishioners did three out of four homilies a month. The music was heavenly. Beatles, old spirituals, with a band. I still miss it. I wish we lived closer, so we could still go. I know this isn’t typical catholic, because this church was always in trouble with the Archdiocese. You never know where you will find your spirit I guess.

  12. Thank you all for the thoughtful comments; one of my favorite things ever, ever, EVER is sharing stories and experiences, and really, that’s what unity’s all about. Regarding the limitations some of you brought up on who can take communion in certain churches… I would certainly respect the rules of wherever I was visiting. (The Catholic church I visited in the States welcomed other believers to participate, which I realize isn’t the official modus operandi.) For me, it’s more a matter of my mindset changing, coming to recognize our spiritual kinship, even if I’m not “allowed” to participate in the religious ceremonies.

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