Right on

Maybe it took almost 500 years, but the Catholic Church has adopted some reforms originally demanded by Protestants.

Today, in turn, some Protestants are borrowing ideas from the Catholic Church. In an effort to feel more in sync with other Christians, some denominations have created their own Bible-reading schedules similar to the Roman Catholic Mass Lectionary; they are literally on the same page as others using that same guide. Traditional elements such as more frequent communion, celebrating Lent, or Stations of the Cross strengthen ties between Christians around the world.

The Protestants who came to these soils may have achieved the religious freedoms for which they set out, but lost something vital along the way. How else to explain the “Plan of Union of 1802” when 2,000 independent Congregational churches traded their autonomy and name for the Presbyterian structure and title?

The pilgrims and pioneers yearned for autonomy, to be free of directives about how to worship or live. The Plymouth Rock Society Toast summed it up: “To a church without a bishop and a state without a king.”

But perhaps the only thing more American than to fight for freedom is to achieve freedom and then look longingly at severed ties. It’s the same struggle I experience on a most intimate level. I want to make my own decisions about spirituality but that doesn’t necessarily mean I want to trudge the path alone.

Protestants may be turning back to the Catholic Church for inspiration—but they’re reaching forward too. It wasn’t until I was further along in this journey that I could reflect on some of my earlier church visits and see how popular culture, particularly trends in music, were being incorporated into the services of more established denominations.

“Are you here for the contemporary or traditional service?” a young man inquires of me at the chapel door of a Presbyterian church just a few months after I started my church-going.

“What’s the difference?” I ask. This is the first I’m hearing of two services.

“The music mostly. I think. I don’t know.” He looks around self-consciously. “I always go to the contemporary one. I’ll get Pastor Jeff. He can explain.”

He returns, tailed by a baby-faced man in an enormous blazer. Pastor Jeff has recently lost 100 pounds or he just likes really loose-fitting clothes. Either way, it makes him appear even younger than he already seems, like a kid wearing his father’s suit.

“You’re visiting us today!” He exudes oodles of confidence. He is handsome in a clean-cut way. I nod, picturing him in Christian camp as a teenager, all the girls chastely fawning over him in the mess hall.

“Right on,” he says enthusiastically, using a phrase I associate with surfers. He explains that the contemporary service uses newer “rock” songs and guitar, whereas the other features older hymns and a choir. Besides this, they are the same: identical message and readings and sermon. “The newer music rubs some of the older folks the wrong way,” he says.

I choose the one starting immediately—the contemporary one.

In the main sanctuary, Pastor Jeff says a few words of welcome and then disappears into the corner. Suddenly, a loud guitar riff fills the chapel. I scan the room to spy what I had previously overlooked: to the side of the altar sit the accoutrement of a full rock band including drums, bass, keyboards and two backup singers sandwiched between tall concert speakers.

The pastor spins to face us, an electric guitar strapped to his chest…

A common heart

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.

Back to beginnings

Perhaps I’ve become distracted by spirit worlds and heavenly realms and future paradises. The colorful plot twists of Christianity’s evolution have captured my imagination. I have to remind myself what this story is really about, and my original question of how it speaks to regular life lived right now.

All of it goes back to a person called Jesus and the core values he expressed during his time on Earth. His was a message of love and sacrifice. Through his example, I am meant to feel loved so that, in turn, I can do my part to love and care for humanity. I am meant to grow comfortable, confident even, walking this planet with the knowledge that my life as I know it will not last long. I have to concentrate to allow this core lesson to resonate in my chest.

Each time I step foot in a church or sing a hymn or read a Bible verse, am I supposed to automatically return to this basic message—triggered like a buried memory?

Not long ago, with my Martin Luther picture book in hand, I had imagined the experience of worship in a Catholic church as one of passive observation: ritual as beautiful, remote spectacle. I have stepped foot in countless Catholic churches as a tourist both here and in Europe and admired the opulent interiors that, even when not in use, are alive with statuary and reflective surfaces.

I may have come a long way on this journey, but it doesn’t compare to the distance the Catholic Church has traveled—first to the Atlantic shores of this continent and then towards the Pacific.

The plain and intimate chapel I walk into is surprising. The walls are stark white, the furniture simple. The one bit of sparkle comes from the flames of two candles atop the modest altar. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was a Protestant church.

As I take a seat in a basic wood pew, I conjure the image of a pampered and perfumed lady making her way across the American plains in a covered wagon. Each stage of the journey, she sheds a facet of her fancy facade. Illness forces her to trade jewelry for medicine, the wind takes her silk scarf, the sun freckles her porcelain skin. Finally, she arrives at her destination indistinguishable from the other pioneering women who’ve made the same journey: weathered, weary, and windblown.

The only initial indication that this is an outpost of the mighty Catholic Church is a fat book tucked next to the hymnals, which I pull out and flip through. In this volume, every mass of the entire year is spelled out. The “lectionary cycle” insures the Bible is completed on a regular schedule, mandating which parts are read when. The format, authorized by the authorities in Rome, is shared by Catholic churches all over the world: first, a reading from the Old Testament or, at specific times of the year, books of the New Testament; a responsorial Psalm that is, ideally, sung; a second reading from one of the New Testament Letters (only on Sundays); and finally a Gospel reading. Throw in a few hymns and communion. Bada bing, bada boom! You’ve got a service.

Even the communion wafers are mandated. The priest hands each person a tasteless disk of unleavened cracker. No random chunks of misshapen loaves here. Someone, somewhere, is in charge of purchasing Lord’s Supper supplies from a centralized source.

Consistency is key; codes and canons have standardized the practices. It’s a reminder that this denomination has a figure who’s something like a king, a human who speaks on behalf of God. While each church is a finger or toe of this single body, decisions are made by the head. It’s in part what Luther was reacting to when he wrote his manifesto of desired reforms. He wasn’t so much opposed to the consolidated power as what it meant: mandates or traditions he found disagreeable could not be easily changed.

Yet in the 500 or so years since Luther, the Catholic Church has made significant changes, some of which are exactly what Luther was calling for in his day.

As the day’s service unfolds, I imagine what Martin Luther might think if he were sitting next to me…