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I am a liberal Catholic. I consider myself a loyal but critical but member of the Roman Catholic Church. I acknowledge that at times I find myself intellectually estranged from the faith. Frankly, I often struggle with church teachings as well as my relationship to the Church. One day I am filled with an almost zealous certainty, but the next moment I find I am profoundly discouraged. Discouraged with what I consider to be an unresponsive, insensitive bureaucracy. Frustrated by what I view as an intolerant, narrow-minded unfeeling hierarchy. I often feel disenfranchised. Nonetheless, the Church remains my spiritual home and a perennial source of comfort. So why would a self-proclaimed liberal Catholic want to share his story with the Catholic Planet e-zine? Let me assure you it is not to criticize or theologize. It is certainly not to patronize or anathematize. My sole purpose is to share a personal experience that has gently reminded me of what a richly woven tapestry the Roman Catholic tradition truly is.
Recently I spent a weekday morning taking care of an assortment of projects and errands. As I finished up the last of my tasks I happened to recall there was an old Catholic church, St. Patrick, nearby. Unexpectedly I felt the need, dare I say “call”, to visit St. Patrick's and spend a few quiet moments in the aging Romanesque structure. Strangely, it didn't seem I had a choice, so around the corner I went.
The church was originally constructed in 1851. It has since undergone minor restoration on numerous occasions. I once attended mass at St. Patrick and knew from personal experience it was one of our dioceses' most conservative parishes. Everyone is expected to kneel at the altar railing and to receive Holy Eucharist directly on the tongue rather than in ones hand. Several of my acquaintances have chosen St. Patrick as their church precisely because of its ultra-conservative staff. Today I didn't intend to remain for noon mass. I only wanted to spend a quiet, prayerful moment in the sanctuary.
Why would a liberal catholic like myself ever seek refuge in conservative, old St. Patrick? Why? Perhaps my rational mind would argue that all I wanted was to bathe in the physical coolness away from the 90 degree plus June heat. Or maybe it was just the tug of nostalgia, a longing for the times when my faith was simple and unquestioning, like a visit to a museum of religious artifacts. Whatever the reasons and in spite of my sometime foggy faith, on this particular morning I found myself opening the heavy, wooden door of St. Patrick church. I might add here that I did so with a certain trepidation. As I said before, I am a liberal Catholic!
Walking across the threshold I automatically dipped my fingers into the Holy water. Immediately a comforting embrace of holiness settled upon my heart. It was numinous and instantaneous. The water seemed charged with a spiritual current that connected me directly to a familiar, welcoming spiritual heritage. A sense of physical blessing was strikingly real as I solemnly crossed myself. The old wooden floor creaked as I walked slowly, reverently to a pew in the back of the church. I had expected nominal solitude but there must have been 30 people in the church. Each soul praying, focused in their intentions, waiting for Holy Mass to begin. I could hear the faint undertones of women reciting their rosary. The sacristan was diligently, lovingly replacing candles before the century old statue of the Virgin Mary who seemed to cast a loving glance my way. The air in old St. Patrick's seemed alive with devotion.
I will not attempt to describe the details of the church interior for I know each of you has visited just such a church. You are no doubt familiar with the marvelous German stained glass; the white panels of the reredos with attendant angels; the large crucifix above and behind the altar; the ornate brass tabernacle; the painted ceiling depicting Old Testament prophets along with scenes from the life of Christ. What I want to attempt to describe is the warm wave of spiritual passion that enwrapped me, lovingly lifting me out of the all to familiar work-a-day world. But how do I capture the depth of those feelings? How do I convey the reassuring sense of spiritual continuity, the tangible quality of sacredness, the fragrance of sanctity that seem to surround and engulf me?
As I knelt my prayer came naturally, simply. It flowed effortlessly from my heart without interference from my mind. It was so simple, so uncomplicated. I just said, "Jesus, I love you, guide me now and always". I just loved Jesus. I loved his Church. I longed to receive his body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament. Each heartbeat seemed to synchronize with the heartbeat of the gathering community. Worship and pray . . .worship and pray . . .worship and pray. It was as if I could absorb God's blessing through my very pores through a kind of spiritual osmosis.
And as I sat there in silence, allowing the Spirit to pray through me, to melt away my doubts, my uncertainties, I found myself wondering. Wondering why it was that I, a liberal Catholic, steeped in Vatican II, a champion of reform, never feel this way in the more abstract environment of a modern, 20th century church. I wondered why I seemed to always seek out the older churches for this kind of comfort. When in need of healing I am willing to drive 100 miles to visit a 19th century shrine to Our Lady of Consolation. When I am despairing about employment, I am drawn to the gothic St. Josephs Cathedral to light a candle and ask for the patron's prayerful intercession. Is it the smell of candles and the lingering fragrance of incense? Or is it more. Is it a subtle, nourishing awareness of how so many of deep faith have brought their unquestioning love and complete devotion, their pain and heartache, their joys and triumphs to these churches throughout the years? I wonder, has the atmosphere literally been saturated with their faith? Is this what I tap into? The explanation doesn't matter. It's a beautiful connection which elicits a love for God, a love for Jesus, a love for Mary, a love for the Church and a renewed love for my brothers and sisters. It can't be wrong or misleading. Then I ask myself, have the various reforms of Vatican II somehow denigrated the richness of this tradition? Have we perhaps thrown out the 'baby' with the Holy water? This is not a thought a liberal likes to entertain.
Well, I didn't stay for mass. Perhaps I should have. It seemed I had received great blessings despite my brief visit with Him in old St. Patrick's. A sense of His loving presence lingered with me the remainder of the day. Later that evening I shared this experience with my wife. She listened quietly, nodding in agreement. Together we concluded that most modern churches are so sterile of the aura of sanctity that ones entire focus must be upon the words and actions of the mass itself. There is nothing to absorb viscerally. These churches seem to lack what might be called a “somatic spirituality”. Its not that I want to be inattentive at mass but there are times when I just want to be covered with the Spirit. In modern churches I seem to find myself having to 'work' at worship. Perhaps modern church architecture forces one into cold abstractions.
So, we resolved to attend Mass the following Sunday in an old church. A church filled with the scent of tallow, mixed with the vibrant air of tradition, hallowed by years of deep love and devotion. I couldn't wait, even though I am a liberal Catholic.
-- by Wes Williams
Copyright © 2001 by Wes Williams