My friend, Jim, pastored in small-town Missouri. “Greg,” he once confided, “you can’t swing a dead cat in my town without hitting a Baptist.” Apart from whether dead-cat swinging is advisable, I understood what he meant. What is true in Missouri is even more pronounced in Oklahoma (my adopted state), where there are not just Baptists but as many choices of church “flavors” as ice cream flavors at Coldstone Creamery.
Yet my roots are in the Northeast, where most of my growing up years were in Rochester, New York. While Syracuse is dominated by the Irish, Rochester and Buffalo were more heavily settled by Italian immigrants. In my high school, there were wonderful Italian last names like Dallasandro, Cervone, and Arcuri, to name a few. With a strange, decidedly un-Italian name like Crofford, at times it seemed like I was one of the few whose last name didn’t end with an “i,” “o,” or “e.”
Italian ancestry brought with it Roman Catholicism. In elementary school, the cafeteria never served hamburgers on Fridays, only fish sticks, a concession to old-school Catholicism and its fasting practices that endured in the early 70s, Vatican II notwithstanding. On the bus, students talked about their Saturday “religion” classes and later about taking “first communion” or “confirmation.” In 10th grade chemistry, I chatted with my friend, Greg, who asked me what I wanted to do with my life. “I’m going to be a pastor,” I answered. Shocked, he asked: “But don’t you want to get married and have children?” Since Roman Catholic priests (pastors) are celibate, he couldn’t comprehend that as a Protestant I could purse the ministry and have a family.
As I look back on my public school experience, I realize that in many ways I was a Protestant lost in a sea of Catholicism.
As incredible as it now seems, as a child I believed that Catholics were all bound for hell. Maybe it was the Chick Tract that said the Pope was the Anti-Christ. Perhaps it was a stray comment here-and-there from adults, asking prayer for good Catholic church attending individuals, that they would be “saved.” Whoever it was that wrote on the wet cement of my young mind, the etching soon hardened. We were “in” and they were “out.” Others told me that we should “have a burden for the lost,” that we should pray and “witness” to them. Throughout 3rd grade, I was determined to tell my friends at school about Jesus, but at the end of the day, always felt guilty that I hadn’t had the courage to do so.
High school ended, and I’ve never gone back. College at one of the liberal arts institutions sponsored by my denomination meant I was no longer religiously isolated. Rather, I was one of the “birds of a feather who flock together,” surrounded by individuals of like faith. Later years brought marriage, family, and work as a pastor and missionary in my denomination.
As I’ve grown older, I’m able to reflect more objectively on my experience as a lonely Protestant. Here are some of the things I’ve concluded:
1. I needlessly distanced myself from my peers. I wonder how many friendships never blossomed because I was convinced in some way that I couldn’t articulate at the time that association = religious compromise? When Catholic girls flirted with me, I didn’t flirt back, but how could I tell them it wasn’t because they weren’t pretty but because they were Catholic? In retrospect, my aloofness was overkill.
2. Some of my prejudices are inherited. As one in the Anglican/Methodist tradition, I was surprised to find anti-Catholic sentiments in the writings of two of my heroes, John and Charles Wesley. They speak of “Papism” as shorthand for their distaste of all things Roman. Some of that bigotry has been passed down to their ecclesiastical descendants, myself included, and we would do well to challenge it.
3. Roman Catholics love the Church. Whereas my own tradition does well speaking of the importance of being born again, being “saved,” and having a relationship with Jesus Christ, too many of the “saved” don’t have a good grasp of how church fits into the scheme. Sadly, faith then becomes an individualistic endeavor. On the other hand, Roman Catholics by-and-large respect the importance of the Church as the community of faith. Sure, they can be openly critical of it and sometimes will only attend a few times a year (as do some Protestants), but when outsiders attack the Church, watch out! They circle the wagons. Church is not a “tack on” for the Catholic; it is at the center of their faith, and there is something alluring about that. When former Catholics join Protestant churches, I’ve noticed that they often conserve their high view of the Church. What Protestant pastor isn’t thrilled to have loyal members like that?
4. The liturgy and architecture point us Godward. Does the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus during Eucharist? That’s a hard one for me to swallow, yet there is a majesty to the old rituals of Catholic worship that make the evangelical fad of “seeker sensitive” worship seem shallow by comparison. Protestant church buildings – at least lately – look more like office complexes. There is something worshipful, on the other hand, about a vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, and pews that are bolted down. Cathlolic architecture says: “Do you need a place for dinners? That’s in the adjoining building. This space is for worship, and that’s enough.”
5. Socially, Roman Catholics care about many of the things I care about. Family is vital, and abortion is to be avoided. These two conservative tenets overlap with the thinking of many Protestant evangelicals.
6. I like Pope Francis. His tenure has started off with him garnering respect from a wide spectrum of Christian leaders as he lives a simple life and radiates love to all with whom he comes in contact.
Purposely, this essay has not dwelt upon where Roman Catholicism and Protestantism part ways. That list includes the place of Mary and the saints, but I have learned that non-adherence to the overall beliefs/practices of a particular religious group does not mean that we must paint with a broad brush, calling what is good, bad. We can celebrate the ways that God is working in other groups, and hope that they will in-turn celebrate the ways that God is working among us, warts and all.
Jesus said to Peter in John 21 not to worry about the so-called “Beloved Disciple,” that he was not Peter’s concern. Instead, he simply said to Peter: “You must follow me.” As Christians, let us affirm one another where we can, but most importantly, keep our eyes upon the One whom we are following. Doing that, how can we go wrong?
Image credit: Artchive.com