I think Luther would be happy that modern Catholic congregants are no longer forced into passive obsversation. Many can choose to get involved.
At the mass I am attending today, the priest is assisted by a small group of helpers of all ages and genders who have signed up in advance. One person carries the Book of Gospels and does the first reading and the Responsorial Psalm. Another is responsible for the second reading and the Prayers of the Faithful. Younger altar servers carry the cross and candles.
The priest and his helpers walk down the aisle in a processional sequence explained on several printable pages on this church’s website. It spells out every detail: when to bow at the altar, where to place the candles, how to move from one spot to the next. Perhaps on some days, some priests will venture off script to say a few words of their own. The priest who is running the show on this day stays true to every word and movement handed down to him by a higher authority. My thoughts rise like a helium balloon, freed by this spectacle that feels strangely reminiscent—though of what, I’m not sure.
I imagine myself as one of a huge brigade of soul soldiers stepping in unison. Day to day, the congregants here know that millions of others across the globe are reading the same Bible selections, contemplating the same issues, experiencing the same basic service. It’s like the menu at a McDonald’s or Starbucks: items arrive exactly as you expect. But this is more than Big Macs and Frappuccinos. It’s a connection to the infinite, to a higher power.
Here lies the crux of all religious innovation: do you accept a product as-is, and the backing that comes with it? Or do you opt for something new and risk standing alone?
I rein in my musings only to have them float off again.
Being in the Catholic church keeps hurling me back in time because the connection, I see, is not just to others living around the world today, but to previous generations; it offers a continuity with the past that even new denominations must honor. Here is an ancestor they have in common. I picture the face of my great-grandmother who, by the time I met her, was toothless and whiskered and blind; her name, Aphrodite, did not quite suit her.
Then I recall a day I haven’t thought of in years. My grandmother and I are on an errand to drop off her special finikia cookies for the upcoming Greek Festival. The outside of the Orthodox Church in downtown Dallas is pure white—smooth stucco with a big mound in the middle like an overgrown igloo, its ancient ways preserved on ice by the long-ago split with the Catholic church.
Tables are being set up in the courtyard and in the hallways. Grandma lets go of my hand. The door of the chapel is ajar, and I can see a sliver of bright red so incongruous with the pearly exterior; I am drawn to it. Opening that slit and stepping through was like performing an autopsy, peeling away the smooth skin to reveal a beating heart. Bright red carpeting lined the aisles leading to the altar, like arteries carrying me along. The ceiling was painted with faces motioning for to me to look up. The light reflected off the abundant gold paint in the murals, creating a warm glow; a smoky sweetness lingered in the air. So otherworldly did this seem—so unlike the corridor outside where kids were running around and boxes of baklava were being dropped off—that I felt like a character in my favorite book the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, stepping across a threshold into a different dimension.
My grandmother, her grandmother and all our mothers before that, we each had our individual heart in our chest, the one that pumped blood and kept us alive, but this was a heart we shared—one that beat through generations.