November 2, 2013

Port City Post: ‘Peace be with you,’ and with all the other outsiders in church for Mass

Via the Catholics in her life, a Protestant is moved by rituals more stirring than those she grew up with.

‘OK, I forget. What’s original sin?” asked my daughter in the middle of doing her history homework.

“It’s a reference to Adam and Eve doing it in the garden,” I responded. (Nice parenting.) And then she said, “No, I think it’s when Eve ate the apple.”

“It has something to do with Adam and Eve, an apple and doing it in the garden,” I repeated. And that’s about as far as we get without my husband, the ex-Catholic, who is away visiting his Catholic family.

With a name like “McGowan,” most people assume I’m Catholic. “Sorry, no,” I tell them. “Something happened on the boat.”

I am surrounded by Catholics, though – mostly ex-Catholics who are married to non-Catholics. There’s always an even number of ex-Catholics to non-Catholics at our dinner parties, and not one of us is a churchgoer. As the ceremonial red wine (an end-of-a-long-week-of-work-and-parenting ritual) is poured, it’s always the ex-Catholics who have the best stories.

Starting with my friend Marie, who, at age 10, tested the theological doctrine of the Body of Christ by saving the Host in her mouth until she left church. Then she threw it on the ground to see what would happen. Not having been struck dead by God or lightning, she instantly became a nonbeliever.

Kids take things literally. For example, a young believer once told me that if I didn’t let Jesus into my heart, I would go straight to hell. I was willing to consider letting the man into my heart to avoid hell, but I was not willing to let him sneak into my bedroom in the middle of the night to cut my chest open.

My husband became a nonbeliever on the way to Mass with his family of nine. While passing a Protestant friend’s house, he remembered Father’s warning that all non-Catholics would go straight to hell. At 5 years of age, he recognized the hypocrisy and became a nonbeliever.

And then there’s the story of his college friend who, at age 9, fell backward out of the confessional booth and hit his head on the parish radiator. Terrified by the thought of confessing to the priest that he had committed adultery by kissing his first cousin, he passed out.

Our family belonged to a Congregationalist church. Other than keeping quiet, there wasn’t a lot asked of me during the 45-minute service, which was boring in comparison to my Catholic friends’ Mass experience. Any time I could finagle an invite to Mass, I went and I loved it.

There were so many things to do at Mass: stand up, sit down, kneel and cross my chest (executed left-handed and backward). In addition to standing, sitting, kneeling and miscrossing myself, I could also finally see who was behind me while turning to do the peace-be-with-you handshake – my personal favorite. We did not do this in our Congregationalist church, and I did not take it lightly.

I wanted the Catholic parish and the priest to know that I understood what a privilege it was to be among His flock (or something like that). I longed to take Communion, but non-Catholics were not allowed to, so I sat quietly while everyone walked solemnly to the front of the church. Instead of praying, I looked at shoes.

When we visit my husband’s family in Kansas, I’m happy to go to Mass, even if it’s not for a wedding or a funeral.

And now, in these modern times, I take Communion. I walk to front of the church with everyone else.

Some would say the Catholic Church is desperately seeking believers by allowing me to participate in this holy sacrament. That’s fine, I think. It’s something to do.

Instead of holding my hands out to receive the Host-offering, I cross my arms over my chest, which lets the priest know that I’m an interloper. Approval granted, I receive the Host, and for the sake of my friend Marie’s soul, I swallow it.

Jolene McGowan lives and works in Portland with her husband, daughter and dog and has no plans to leave, ever. She can be contacted at:r

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