Sunday, February 16, 2020

A Catholic Visits a Pentecostal Church

Being only a week and a half removed from our car crash, I watched the fat snowflakes falling like confetti from the heavens late Saturday night and lost my appetite for driving 45 minutes to my Catholic church come Sunday morning. Call me crazy, but the idea of driving our only remaining car over snow-covered roads and through a mountain pass just didn't appeal to me.

But I didn't want to visit any of the Catholic churches closer to home (I touched on that in my last post), so I told my family they were off the hook this week from going to church with me. I'd still find a place to go locally, but they didn't have to tag along. There are a few local churches I've been wanting to visit, for no other reason than that I enjoy seeing how other people do church.

Which one to choose? Well, a Facebook friend who lives nearby said she welcomed people to come to her church a few towns over from me, where she'd be playing bass onstage with the worship band on her birthday. Her church wasn't one of the ones on my list of places to visit, but I figured what the heck. Pentecostal worship isn't really my thing, but I'm up for a good sermon anywhere.

(Yes, I know, I didn't fulfill my weekly Mass obligation. Let me worry about that, fellow Catholics.)

Now, Pentecostalism is not a new thing to me. My first serious girlfriend was a Pentecostal. Her dad was a Pentecostal preacher, and her mom never liked me because she hated Catholicism with the fire of a thousand suns. Every time I stepped into their house, I'd get a theological lambasting about being Catholic, while she'd rattle off everything she found wrong with my church. Being only 19 and having not had the best catechetical upbringing, I lacked the tools to debate her. I'm pretty sure, in hindsight, that she saw that and used it to her advantage. My girlfriend and I made the best of the situation, visiting each other's churches, but there's no way our relationship could have survived.

But even before that, the charismatic movement was not foreign to me. The Catholic church I grew up in had a prayer meeting every week, where people would sing worship songs, hands raised in the air, and some -- including my dad, who brought me with him -- would speak in tongues. Then there was a laying on of hands for anyone who was sick. My dad and godfather often laid their hands on me as I was growing up. I never got the healing I needed, but I have no doubt that their prayers were sincere.

The charismatic Catholic movement is still around today, but not in great numbers. Even in the '70s and '80s, when I experienced it, I don't think it was something that its adherents openly spoke about. That style of loose, spontaneous, frequently noisy, often unpredictable worship was miles away from the reverent, regimented, calm, and disciplined liturgy of the Mass.

Today's service was not as raucous as some of the Pentecostal gatherings I remember from years ago, although the scattered amens and the raised hands and swaying bodies took me back to those days of prayer meetings in the basement of our Catholic church and the services I experienced with my old girlfriend from a lifetime ago.

I sat in the back and just watched. I felt awkward about being overdressed in my button-down shirt, slacks, and topcoat. But nobody said anything unkind. A few people actually stopped to welcome me, which was nice.

I decided to bring my Third Millennium Bible with me, figuring an updated King James wouldn't stand out the way a Douay-Rheims, New American, or Revised Standard Catholic Edition might. (As it turns out, I think the scripture readings came from the NIV.) I noticed one woman behind me had a well-worn Bible sitting next to her, with sticky flags poking out of every possible corner, and it reminded me that dedicated scripture study is one area where Protestants tend to excel over Catholics. We hear the readings every week at Mass but don't crack open a Bible very often at home. Accordingly, where Protestants can often rattle off verses from memory, a Catholic might have to flip around a bit to find, say, the book of Habakkuk, or to remember where exactly the Sermon on the Mount starts. (I have a morning scripture study and own several Bible translations, but then I'm not most Catholics.)

The thing that struck me the most was just how different Pentecostal worship is from Catholic worship -- and not just the style of worship, but the manner in which Pentecostals, and I think Protestants in general, desire an emotional and direct personal relationship with the Divine, where Catholics focus on receiving the grace of God through the sacraments. If an alien landed on Earth and attended a Mass and a Pentecostal service back to back, he'd have no idea that our traditions were rooted in the same core beliefs and the same holy book.

I was also reminded of just how casual a lot of Protestant churches are compared to Catholics. Where we enter and sit in reverent silence before Mass, people today were milling around and talking right up till the service started. And many were clutching cups of coffee -- right there in the sanctuary! And what's that over there? Men wearing hats inside the church? Boy, I was really out of my element.

That's not a criticism, and I'm not going to bag on Pentecostal worship. I didn't go to church today to find things to criticize. There's too much of that stuff in the world already. In fact, one of my favorite YouTube personalities is a Protestant guy who visits other denominations to learn and understand and talk theology. He's had very respectful dialogues with Catholic and Orthodox priests. I think that's terrific. Building bridges is always better than burning them.

And anyway, I'm glad that there's such a diversity of worship styles to suit different needs and personalities. Me -- I'm a thinker, a ponderer, and an observer. (INTP, according to the last time I took the Myers-Briggs test.) Structured liturgical worship suits me well. But I recognize that a lot of Protestant folks would be bored stiff at a Mass if they're accustomed to worship bands instead of pipe organs and choirs, stages instead of altars, pastors in street clothes speaking off the cuff instead of priests in vestments leading us through the formality of the rubrics. I still remember my old Pentecostal girlfriend, after going to a Catholic church with me, announcing that the Mass was so dry, she'd seen more moisture in a piece of stale bread. (Like I said, the relationship was doomed from the start.)

As for the preaching today, it was led mostly by a woman from a husband-and-wife missionary team, and the main scripture passage she focused on was the Parable of the Sower, wherein Jesus likens seed scattered in various conditions to how people will respond in different ways to his teachings. Only those "seeds" that take root in good soil will grow in faith, while those scattered among the rocks and thorns and hard ground will wither.

The part I keyed in on was the point she made about how we can all sow our seeds in different ways, according to our own talents and gifts and aptitudes. I thought that tied in nicely with my own observation of how different worship styles appeal to different people, and how we can all work with our own personal strengths and abilities to grow and share our faith. Some people are good at missionary work. Some are good at philosophical contemplation. Some are perfectly suited to volunteering at the soup kitchen, others for good preaching, others for activism. I'd probably be a good teacher, since I know Catholic theology inside and out, and in fact I may soon get roped into teaching -- or at least assisting in -- some catechism classes at the church I belong to. I suppose I wouldn't mind being a lector, either. Heck, I even used to usher with my dad. It's fun to get involved. But it's nice to be able to sit back, relax, and observe at times too.

For now, though, it's back to the old Catholic routine -- weather permitting.

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