I was brought up Roman Catholic, was taught that missing Sunday Mass was a mortal sin, except when you were sick. (And a mortal sin meant you would burn in hell, for eternity, unless you confessed it, and were absolved.)
How could I have believed that? Children believe what they are taught.
It’s taken me years to learn not to accept other people’s theology, but to question everything, including other people’s interpretations of Scripture. (As I’ve blogged in Inerrancy and Me, I’ve been to Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Charismatic, Anglican and non-denomination churches. They all believed in inerrancy, and all taught different things.)
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The first time I skipped Church (to study for an exam!) I was 21. And—incredibly–I wondered if I would go to hell if I died before I went to confession. (The whole system–missing Mass is mortal sin; we are only forgiven through confession–of course, bolsters the power and authority of the priesthood. But I didn’t see that then.)
And then, after skipping Mass again, I realised that since I was so often excruciatingly bored by the ancient words of the liturgy that I knew by heart, it was extremely unlikely that a just and merciful God would send me to hell for missing Sunday Mass.
Or that he would forgive me upon the say-so of a priest, when I wasn’t truly, truly sorry. Or that he would not forgive me without formal confession, if I were sorry.
Being a Catholic Charismatic had me reading Scripture, and Scripture did not say that missing Sunday Mass was a mortal sin.
And so I didn’t go the next Sunday, or the next…
In fact, because of memories of almost unbearable boredom during 21 years of Catholic Masses, I simply cannot force myself to go to a Catholic Mass now, even when I visit parents, in-laws, Catholic relatives or friends. (A minor case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, I suppose!)
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As Martin Luther discovered, once you start questioning the extra-Biblical doctrines of the Catholic Church, there is no end to it. I questioned other things.
An aspect of my family’s faith which annoyed me was their large donations for masses to be said for dead relatives to spring them from purgatory. My mother still pays for masses for my little family, so let me not totally discount any spiritual blessing from this, because we have certainly been blessed.
I thought of Sister Josephine in school, who told me that she loved me best of all the students she’d taught over 40 years, and would use her discretionary “pocket money” to buy masses to be said for me in perpetuity in Rome. I would look at the Mass cards dubiously, and wish she had bought herself (or me!) chocolate instead.
But she would be delighted with the woman I now am, the life I now live, and my durable faith, so perhaps her intention of buying prayer for me was honoured by God—or perhaps there are still priests in Rome praying for me. Perhaps.
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The shawl of faith kept unravelling.
Come on, did the words spoken by a priest change the host to the very Body and Blood of Christ? If it did, if I were indeed eating GOD, wouldn’t I be radically changed?
But after Mass, I, and everyone else at boarding school, was as bitchy as before. I mentioned that to Sister Josephine, and she said, “But how do you know what you would have been if you had not received Holy Communion?” And that indeed, who knows.
Nah, didn’t believe in transubstantiation any more. We do it in memory of him, that’s all.
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Gotterdamerung. The Twilight or Destruction of False Gods. It’s very sad, very stressful, very painful—and very liberating!
And what was all this praying to saints? Wasn’t Jesus, God himself, who died to atone for our sins enough? Who could have enough devotion to pray to Therese, Catherine, and Francis in addition? To Anthony when you lose something, Jude when the cause is hopeless, Monica when your children are wayward? And why, why, why pray to this crowded communion when you can go up the waterfall, through the veil, to the presence of the Most Holy God himself?
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And the dreadful Rosary, the dreaded recitation of 50 Hail Marys, 5 Our Fathers and 5 Glory Bes, which so marred my childhood with its unutterable noisy boredom, which blocked out the possibility of quiet communion with God.
Didn’t Jesus say we shouldn’t be like the pagans who think they will be heard for their many words? Instead how I suffered through the gabble, the noise of the Catholicism I was brought up in, the Novenas, the Litanies, the Rosaries, the Masses…
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And all the extra-Biblical dogmas men with too much time on their hands have conjured up—the Infallibility of the Pope, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into heaven, these “infallible dogmas” were mere invented ideas, conceits.
Oh, let me not get started!! Especially on the sentimental, ubiquitous, extra-Scriptural reverencing Mary. The prayers to her. Where is all this in Scripture, I used to ask? an anguished, roaring bull–knowing little of Luther, little knowing he asked the same questions 500 years ago!!
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So what is coming from Catholicism to Mere Christianity like?
Imagine the Lord Jesus sitting by a quiet, still mountain spring.
You walk to him through the noise, the chaos, the cacophony, the music, the poetry, the art, the kitsch. Through all the apparitions of the virgin, dogmas, novenas, litanies, rosaries. The terracotta army of saints. The noisy crowd of witnesses . That was Catholicism for me.
And how grateful I am to the tormented Martin Luther for pointing out that a man is saved by Jesus alone, without all this paraphernalia.
We can come back to the heart of worship, which is all about Jesus.
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And we must make sure we ignore the moneychangers and those selling doves in Protestantism too, steer clear of the noise of too many festivals, conferences, retreats; celebrities, big name speakers, big egos, all flogging their course, book, blog, their way to the Way. Their Latest Greatest Shortcut to Heaven. For the house of prayer always risks becoming a den of thieves.
But you, Man and Woman of God, flee all this, and come back to the Jesus you’ll encounter in the Gospels, those simple sparse first century narratives. Come back to the heart of worship.