Sometime in May, a friend and I decided to attend the Catholic mass held on our camp. I have wanted to go for months but found it almost impossible to get my own sermon finished in time for a Saturday evening worship service. When I heard good things about the new priest from a reputable source, I decided it was now or never.
Having spent most of my life in the Episcopal church, Catholic church has always felt strangely familiar, the one real difference experienced in communion, or lack thereof. When I was younger and markedly more mischievous, I typically followed my friend Lindsay to the altar for bread and wine. She never told, and I felt sure that God wouldn’t care too much. I also had a “plan” ready in case I ever got caught. Much to my relief, there were never any Eucharistic police standing guard. It was easy to blend into the crowd.
In our little corner of the world, I can no longer get away with such blatant church rebellion. Besides the fact that my uniform plainly announces that I am a chaplain by the simple cross that sits above my name-tag, I also know most of the congregation by name, part of the joy of attending church with them. There is no possible way that I could be Catholic because of the requirements which my job as a chaplain demands, most importantly an ordination by some recognized religious denomination. Even if I was a stranger, with no outward discernible marker of my clergy status, now, a little more grown up, I would remain prayerfully in my seat.
My grandmother often repeated a story about the time she was invited to receive communion in a Catholic church. It was somewhere in Colorado, in the midst of a blizzard. She was young and alone, away from home. Precious few faithful congregants had made a somewhat harrowing journey to a little chapel where a priest celebrated over Sunday mass. My grandmother, a church organist and daughter of a Baptist minister, not a Catholic, planned to remain in her seat, too. Full participation in communion would have been her first choice that morning, but she went there, knowing and respecting church doctrine. More than anything she hoped, just hearing those familiar words, “Take, eat, this is my body broken for you. Whenever you eat this bread, you do this in remembrance of me.” would somehow be enough. Yet, something unexpected happened in that tiny chapel. Maybe it was the flickering lights, the raging snow storm, or that only a few had gathered. Maybe in the quiet of those moments, God moved inexplicably. When it was time to take communion, the priest invited all of them to the table to be a part of the holy meal.
My grandmother told the story more times than I can remember, and when I was a teenager, lacking any real patience, often to my dismay. As I have gotten older though, I understand better just why the experience was so important to her. She spent her whole life folding her hands like a cross and receiving a bit of bread and a sip of wine. Yet, in that one space of worship, she could not be included, a sad reminder of the fractions and cracks in our wider church family. Perhaps, for her, that moment of inclusion was surprising hope, a foretaste of the unity which we are all longing for, a time when we will all sit at God’s table and break bread together.
In the meantime, I don’t go to Catholic church secretly wishing that the priest will break the rules for me. Instead, I go because just listening to those words of remembrance that I have heard my entire life, and now, have even pronounced myself as a celebrant, bring me fuller life. I am reminded, even from my seat, that God has come into the world to give us all new life, to teach us how to love one another, even when it hurts so much that our cheeks are wet with our tears, and to bring us all, again and again, back into God’s one, holy fold.