In the time since I became an atheist, I’ve also become a bit of a church tourist. The church in which I grew up harped incessantly about how we were the chosen few, and that all the rest of the world was spiritually lost. So what was the point of visiting other churches? To see the myriad of ways one can be damned? Besides, even if one were inclined to do so, going to other churches for weddings and funerals even was viewed with fear and anxiety.
So once I shed the fear of seeing how other people practiced their Christianity, I thought it would be an interesting idea to stop by a few neighborhood churches to see how they did things, to see what they were all about. And since that time, I’ve been to many times more different churches than I ever had during my Christian years.
This past Sunday, for the first time, I went to a Catholic mass. For some time now, I had thought to myself how I needed to swing by St. Joseph’s if I was going to be a well-rounded church tourist. The Catholic Church, after all, is the single largest church in the world, boasting more than a billion members throughout the world, and the highest percentage of religious adherents in the United States. What’s more, when people refer to “the church” in popular culture, we all have a good idea what they’re talking about, and it happens to be a church that I know a fair amount about just in general. I’ve just never been to any of their services.
On Sunday morning, as I walked up along the outside of the building, my first impression was that the architecture seemed oddly modern for a Catholic church. What happened to the huge Baroque Cathedrals of old? Do they not make them like that anymore? Are they just fewer and further between? Or maybe, just like people, God’s taste in architecture has evolved over time. But this thought passed relatively quickly when I crossed the statue of the Virgin Mary out front, and I remembered how much of a focus Catholics put on the mother of Jesus in comparison to other sects of Christianity.
The most interesting thing about being a church tourist is that you’re able to view from a relatively objective vantage point the similarities and differences between how the faiths are practiced. And this is incredibly interesting because the things that people of these various faiths proclaim really set them apart are often incredibly superficial. For anyone learning about the different faiths for the first time, I doubt they’d be impressed by, say, the importance placed on the topic of submersion vs a few drops of water for baptism.
But the difference between Catholics and Protestants are certainly greater, particularly when it comes to the overall structure of the church, and the way that saints are named and created, the veneration of Mary, and fact that Catholics believe the Eucharist literally (as opposed to figuratively) turns into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It’s tough to say how many Catholics actually believe this, but that’s the doctrine at least. This was all stuff that I knew before showing up for mass though, so I was looking forward to finding out how practicing Catholics exercised any of these differences.
I suppose I was most surprised by how much of the service was ceremony as opposed to sermon. Sure, there was plenty of sermon, but the ratio of speaking and reading from the priest compared to the length of the service was oddly small in comparison to your average Protestant Church. Maybe this is a small matter, but I don’t think it is. Think again about the Eucharist. Just prior to the eating of the body and drinking of the blood, the priest went through this process of recitation and ceremony with the wafer which was obviously supposed to be the mechanism by which it transformed into absolutely literal human flesh. It was during this process that I had a difficult time not laughing since he looked like a cut-rate magician who was attempting the most lackluster trick in his suitcase. I could hear Hagrid’s voice, “You’re a wizard, Harry,” as the priest held the wafer aloft, as the circular paste bread did literally nothing. But this isn’t something that’s done in Lutheran churches though, simply because there’s no need for the minister to attempt any hocus-pocus on the bread and wine.
I told a few people that I went to church on Sunday, and the response is almost always some form of, “Why would you do that?” They know I’m an atheist, so yeah, it seems weird. But it really shouldn’t be. We live in a world where most of our neighbors have some sort of religious belief, and every weekend a lot of them get together in these different buildings to do, I dunno, something. Far as I’m concerned, it’s best to learn what that something is. The first church that I toured as an atheist left a huge impression on me, and a horrible taste in my mouth. It was Grace Bible Chapel. The pastor’s sermon was a long rant about how people who don’t believe (people like me) are the worst people imaginable, and that they should be destroyed completely, up to and including being tortured to death by hornets (Deuteronomy 7), while the congregation smiled and nodded complacently at the barbarity this monster was preaching. Prior to going to that church, I knew that non-believers weren’t cared for or trusted, but it struck a chord to hear it stated so horrifically straight from the horse’s-ass’s mouth, not to mention how all the people there just tacitly agreed with him. Not every church preaches such evil things, at least not on a regular basis, so it’s been good to find out which buildings in the neighborhood harbor the worst offenders.
The homily at St. Joseph’s this past Sunday was pretty benign, especially in comparison. It was a lot of harping about how faith in God is the most important thing, as well as a little talk about how the Christmas season is about Jesus and not just the new TV you’re planning to buy. And in addition, it easily had the best music of any church I’ve been to so far. Figured I could probably count on the Catholics for that, and they didn’t disappoint.
Too bad the Catholic Church is a child rape cover-up ring with a history of the sale of indulgences, the murder of “witches” and heretics, and a hard-fisted totalitarian rule over the emotional lives of billions of people over its two millennia of existence.