Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 1)

My family were Sunday-and-Christmas Catholics. That is to say, we went to mass on Sundays (unless we were on vacation) and on Christmas day. We didn’t go to mass on any other holy days; we didn’t have prayer cards, scapulars, or rosaries; we went to public school rather than Catholic school; and we never stayed for coffee after the service, assuming that there was coffee after the service. I know there was sometimes, but whether it was a regular thing I can’t say.

Religious observances outside church were confined to prayers at bedtime and grace before dinner. We weren’t tepid about religion, precisely; but for my dad, being Catholic was something you did, not something you talked about. My dad still goes to mass every Sunday, and he still doesn’t talk about it. For my mom, being Catholic was something other people did; she was Methodist, and though she went to mass with dad every Sunday, she followed up by going to the local Methodist church immediately afterward. I suspect that’s why my childhood lacked certain traditionally Catholic markers.

I was born a year after Vatican II began, and although I have vague memories of my elder siblings carrying big heavy missals to mass I don’t recall ever hearing the mass said in Latin. From the time I first began to pay attention, it was all English. Catechism class, or “CCD”, was similar; I suppose my siblings probably remember the pre-Vatican II catechism, but I went through CCD during those heady days when the “Spirit of Vatican II” excused a multitude of well-intentioned experimentation. I don’t know if this explains anything, and I think all of my CCD teachers were doing their best; but as an example, though we were all given rosaries one year we spent less than a class session on how to pray the rosary. I was left with a vague notion that you said an Our Father followed by a bunch of Hail Mary’s, lather, rinse, repeat; nobody ever hinted that there was more to it than that.

I went through First Communion, and later on was duly confirmed; and after that CCD was over and done with, as was any involvement at my local church beyond going to mass on Sunday.

I went through something of a crisis of faith during my high school years; which is to say that I found God to be increasingly inconvenient and thought that I’d be happier if I could be sure He wasn’t really there. That ended my senior year due to some circumstances I won’t go into at the moment; it was that year that I really first made up my mind to follow Christ.

Oddly, that was also the year I started consorting with Protestants. A friend took me to a high school group at the local Episcopal church, and I started attending that regularly; in fact, though it isn’t where we first met, that group is where I first really got to know my wife Jane. Then I went off to college; and rather than attending the small Catholic mass in the school chapel I went to the local parish church and joined the campus InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group. I was active in IVCF all four years of college and grew considerably in my faith; and that whole time I attended mass every Sunday at Our Lady of the Assumption where I never got to know anybody.

After college I went to Stanford for graduate school, and at Stanford, oddly, I actually got in with a group of young Catholic adults at the campus Newman Center. That was probably my most Catholic year to date, and I remember it fondly.

I started dating Jane that year, and after I got my degree I returned to Southern California. I went back to attending my old church every Sunday, where I knew (almost) nobody, and Jane and I joined a young adult group at a Catholic church in Pasadena which we found out about because the folks I knew at Stanford knew some folks in that group. We made many friends there; ironically, the only one we still keep in regular touch with isn’t Roman Catholic (nor was he then).

Do you begin to see a pattern here? Every since I first decided to take my faith seriously, I’d been involved in some kind of Christian community; but except for that one year at Stanford, the community I was in was always completely separate from where I attended mass.

Around this time Jane and I decided to get married; and that raised the question of where we were going to go to church. And that was a big deal, because Jane was Episcopalian and she found mass at St. James to be rather underwhelming. Yes, the service had a lot in common with the service she was used to; but….

But there wasn’t any coffee hour after the service. Or if there was, I didn’t know about it, and I certainly wasn’t able to introduce her to anyone. At her church, St. Luke’s, she knew everybody. And the singing at St. James was subpar by her standards (she was in choir for years), and we never sang more than two verses of any hymn. And some people left the church right after communion, instead of waiting for the closing hymn; and if they did wait for the closing hymn, they were often out the door before it was over. Which given that we never sang more than two versions meant they had to move fast after the priest left the altar.

And besides, I didn’t know anybody.

To me, “church” meant “the Eucharist”; to Jane, “church” meant “the community”. And given that her church had the Eucharist as well, she really couldn’t see leaving St. Luke’s, where she already belonged to the community, to attend St. James, where I didn’t.

We spent a season or two attending both churches every Sunday, and we had both a Catholic and an Episcopal priest at our wedding; but we were married at St. Luke’s, and after the wedding that’s where we went to church. Some months later I was formally received into the Episcopal Church by our local bishop.

Continuing to attend both churches wasn’t a reasonable solution. Jane and I agreed that we needed to pick a church, and stick with it; my parents’ mixed marriage had worked OK, but it certainly hadn’t been optimal.

I figured it like this. St. Luke’s was what used to be called a “high church” anglo-catholic parish, so the service was very similar to the mass I was used to; in fact, in some ways it seemed even more Catholic than I was used to. St. James was still in the throes of Vatican II, but at St. Luke’s even the choir members wore cassocks, and processed into the church preceded by acolytes bearing candles. I learned that, being a branch of Anglicanism the Episcopal Church could still claim the apostolic succession. And Episcopal doctrine, as it was explained to me, appeared to be everything I wanted in a doctrine, and less. Which is to say, so far as it went it agreed pretty well with what I’d always believed; there was simply less of it, and it didn’t go so far. The doctrine of the Eucharist is a case in point. Episcopalians believed, so I was told, in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Prayer Book didn’t define precisely what “Real Presence” meant, and certainly didn’t insist on transubstantiation; but if I wanted to go on thinking about it that way, there was no harm done. The Marian doctrines were similar–some Episcopalians revered Mary, and there was nothing stopping me from doing so…but there was no insistence on it either.

In short, I could join the Episcopal Church without being asked either to renounce any of the beliefs I held dear, or to believe in anything new. I could, it was presented to me, simply transfer my allegiance from one bishop to another. If Jane were to become Catholic, however, she would be asked to believe many things she hadn’t previously been asked to believe; and she’d lose the parish community she was used to. Put that way, the answer seemed clear. I had little to lose but the Pope and, possibly, some doctrines to which I wasn’t particularly attached. What I had to gain was a happy bride.

Part 2 is here.

  • By Julie D., October 21, 2007 @ 9:52 am

    Interesting progression of faith and it makes complete sense also.

    Looking forward to Part 2. 🙂

  • By Maureen, October 23, 2007 @ 4:47 am

    This is very interesting! My parents are just the opposite — Dad’s United Methodist, Mom’s Catholic and raised us Catholic. He also goes to his church as well as ours. But honestly, I never felt like our faith life was sub-optimal for that reason, and I thank God there’s never been any strain between my parents that I could see. They’re a unique mix of personalities, though; I can see where it wouldn’t work for everyone. (_I’d_ worry about it, if it were me.)

    We definitely had to go to Mass while on vacation. 🙂

  • By warren, October 28, 2007 @ 1:04 pm

    Welcome [back] home Will!

    [Catholic Convert, 10 years as an Anglican]

Other Links to this Post

  1. The View From The Foothills » Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 2) — October 21, 2007 @ 9:54 am

  2. The View From The Foothills » Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 3) — October 22, 2007 @ 6:55 pm

  3. The View From The Foothills » Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 4) — October 24, 2007 @ 12:33 pm

  4. The View From The Foothills » Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 5) — October 24, 2007 @ 12:39 pm

  5. The View From The Foothills » Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 6) — October 25, 2007 @ 7:37 pm

  6. The View From The Foothills » Watching the Tiber Go By (Part 7) — October 26, 2007 @ 9:23 am

  7. The View From The Foothills » By What Authority, by Mark P. Shea — October 30, 2007 @ 3:53 pm

  8. The View From The Foothills » Credit where credit is due — November 18, 2007 @ 4:25 pm

  9. The View From The Foothills » Philosophy and Me, Part V: From Chesterton to Aristotle, via Thomas Aquinas — January 28, 2012 @ 10:21 am

WordPress Themes