My father leaned against the door frame of the log cabin. Meanwhile, “Uncle” Mike pulled the car up, and waited silently behind the wheel. It was Sunday, and the six of us were preparing to join other vacationing Catholics at Mass in the only near-by Catholic Church in St. Lawrence County.
“I got troops over the Burma Hump easier than getting you gals ready for church,” Dad moaned.
Life in post-war ‘50s was far different than today. Maybe Dad commanded troops, but not “Aunt” Marian, Mom, and by friend Ann. We would get there when we got there — which is why I never did see the inside of that church. Invariably, by the time we arrived, people had filled the sanctuary, were standing on the steps, with the overflow gathered on the lawn. We joined the crowd and stood in reverent silence, because although we could neither hear nor see what was happening inside during Mass, being there “counted.”
You may ask, counted for what? According to Catholic teaching in the 50’s, all Catholics, unless sick or unable, through no fault of their own, were obligated to attend Sunday Mass under “pain of mortal sin.” Mortal sin was defined as an offense against God of such severity, it removed God’s sanctifying grace from your soul. You and God were no longer friends. Not confessed, a mortal sin was a one-way ticket to hell, should you suddenly die. So, standing among the faithful at church that morning meant we were technically attending Mass.
Given that theological framework, it comes as no surprise why no one considered driving on to, say, the Methodist church down the road and joining them in worship. In fact, that would have been a highly questionable solution, and one no priest at the time would have suggested.
We lived our spiritual lives in a silo. But then, so did others in their denominations. Ironically, “catholic” — with a lower case “c” — means “universal.” We Christians belong to a “catholic” (universal ) church, with Jesus as its Head.
However, there are signs we are crawling out of our denominational silos. I was talking with my friend, Laurie, who had retired a few years ago from a pastoral leadership position in her Catholic parish church. We were discussing those medieval days in Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II (which blew fresh air into Catholic teaching), when she spoke of their current interfaith services sponsored by the local Northeast Church Cluster (NECC). Her church is actively involved with the Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran churches in Rochester’s northeast quadrant to worship together at least three times a year. They rotate sites, take turns presenting messages from the pulpit, and highlight each other’s music ministries. After taking a collection of non-perishable foods for local food shelves, they gather in fellowship for “coffee and.” Other times, they jointly bless pets, and bicycles (praying for the safety of their young riders). In November, they collectively give thanks at Thanksgiving holiday time. I attended NECC’s joint Tenebrae Good Friday Service one year, and was deeply moved by this ancient church ritual of darkness.
Still, our silos are comfortable, aren’t they? As a Lutheran, I laugh at the joke at our own expense: How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? None. Lutherans don’t like change.
It takes effort to reach out, to visit other churches. Maybe they have something to offer that Jesus wants me to find? As disheartening as it may be to witness division within the universal church, the designation of fellow children of God as “other,” and lack of communication among people of good faith, I see light on the horizon. I felt love for the stranger standing next to me in an interdenominational service. There was joy holding hands with another while singing a hymn foreign to me in style and language.
It is past time for the Body of Christ to rise as one, love all as one, and together demonstrate His perfect, holy, message. Far more unites us than divides us.
As my friend Bill often said, (before returning to his heavenly home), “Don’t major in the minors.” I am sure he is now part of the one throng bowing before the Throne.