My First Time at Mass: Understanding A Protestant Perspective

I haven’t been at this ‘blogging game’ very long but I have learned so much. I feel like I have been immersed in a community that I never knew existed. It has been pretty incredible.  Getting to meet and talk with so many people on a more personal level has been so amazing for me. As I have gotten to know each of you there is something that has stood out that I didn’t realize before – apparently by background is relatively unique. Not that I am special in any way, but that I grew up with little to no exposure of the Catholic Church in a Protestant family (and a nondenominational one at that). From those I have talked to, many who are converts either grew up in a Catholic family but were never confirmed, or fell away from the church and came back. Now, I LOVE hearing those stories, I do! I believe every story should be told – but to be honest, I have a really hard time relating to them. I also have a really hard time relating to cradle Catholics (in some ways) as I still consider myself new to the faith. Yes, it has been two years but lets be honest – the Catholic faith is SO deep and SO vast. My gosh, in my two years I cannot keep up with everyone who has had this lifelong knowledge. In fact, if it weren’t for Instagram I wouldn’t even know about half of the feast days or half of the saints (true story). So, in this post I wanted to give some perspective – to understand both sides of the aisle.

Disclaimer: I have come to the harsh realization that it is almost IMPOSSIBLE to write a post like this that caters to both Protestant readers and Catholic readers equally. Since the majority of my readers are Catholic – the post is slightly skewed for their benefit but I believe is enlightening for anyone!

My Personal Background

Okay, so I am about to get real honest here. Prior to being Catholic, I had a lot of ups and downs in my faith journey. There were points in my life I left the Christian faith all together and considered myself Agnostic (but that is for a different conversation). Generally speaking, growing up I was as “nondenominational” as they come. I could have had sola-scriptura written on my forehead.  I believed Catholics were severely misguided Christians that bordered more closely to having a completely different faith and didn’t REALLY put them in the category of Christian. I felt Catholicism was the epitome of what was wrong with Christianity and why the secular world rejected Christianity as a whole (ever see that catchy viral video about Jesus>Religion? – I felt that was speaking to the Catholic Church and I LOVED it).

I felt it was a corrupt bureaucracy under the guise of a religious institution that refused to accept the modern world and enforced archaic rules that had no biblical merit.

Why? Well, because they prayed to and worshipped other people.  They believed the Pope was God. They believed Priests are the ones who forgive their sins.  They believed that they can just “earn” their way to heaven through meaningless actions.  They believed in purgatory.  They believed that Communion was literal rather than just a representation.  I felt they fundamentally differed so much from my understanding of what it means to be a follower of Christ- I struggled to accept them.  I felt that my severely misguided interpretation of Catholicism was somehow legitimized because I knew ‘Catholics’ who didn’t understand what they believed and just went to Mass on holidays.  I honestly was so arrogant that I felt that if you didn’t have a deep theological basis for what you believed and couldn’t “argue” it with me then clearly my beliefs were superior.  Yeah, I know. Not proud of it- but I own it.

Nondenominational Sunday Service

I want to paint a quick picture for everyone – to really show and understand how different and difficult it is for someone with a Protestant background to conceptualize Catholicism and vice versa. I think the best illustration is just to look at a Sunday nondenominational service vs. a Sunday Mass. Sunday services don’t really change much in format in the Protestant community (at least every one that I have been to) – they are all pretty standard. You start out with 15-20 minutes of singing worship music (with eyes closed, hands raised, emotionally connecting with Jesus). The rest of the hour is filled with the Pastor passionately preaching about whatever is laid on his heart. At the very end of every service the Pastor does a call to the altar in which he asks everyone who feels ‘moved by the Holy Spirit’ to come up to the stage and a prayer team will be there to help pray with them and help them ask Jesus into their hearts (yes- this is a very high level explanation).  Prior to being Catholic, I went to a nondenominational mega-church.  A church with a concert-like venue with stadium seating that could hold thousands. The church had multiple pastors at various locations and was live streamed online for thousands more.  They had Starbucks coffee and teas outside of the arena that you could bring into service.  You could register to join the church via the multiple IPads located in the lobby area and quite literally would be given a goodie bag full of church branded stuff after you registered (it was a cute little goodie bag!).

They had a huge stage with full band dressed in the classical ‘It’s cool to be Christian’ ensemble complete with skinny jeans and some quirky “Jesus is my Homie” t-shirts.  They had some incredible singers singing contemporary, upbeat Christian songs that were timed perfectly to some beautifully edited videos up on the jumbo screens.  They had tvs everywhere on display, giving church announcements and introducing you to the hashtag to which you could use for your photos online. They had mood lighting, background music- all perfectly timed to elicit a strong emotional, spiritual, connection with Christ.  They had multiple camera crews to give live shots of the audience as they worshipped or get close ups of the singers on stage. They gave out pamphlets every week to which you could follow along with the pastor and fill in the blank word of the scripture verses as they put them up on the screen. You name it – it was as nondenominational as they come. (For the record, this isn’t meant to be criticism – just painting a picture.)  For those who have been raised Catholic, I want you to picture that atmosphere – that environment.  That was my main experience of church for my entire life (with varying levels of degrees).  This is what I understood church to be. Just me and Jesus with the lights down low. Everything outside of that was just fluff, it didn’t really matter.

My First Time at Mass

Now… with that picture in your head…let’s talk about my first time EVER going to Mass.  Hah! I was so nervous y’all.  I was about 21 years old when I first went with my at-time boyfriend (now husband- Andy). We had been dating for over a year and up until that point I had refused to go to Mass with him (and he went EVERY Sunday- rain/shine/sick/tired- that man was relentless). I had heard all these stories about what Mass was like.  I had heard it was long. It was boring.  They used funny smells.  You had to know when to stand, when to kneel, and when to sit (talk about ritualistic!). You also had to know what to do when it came time for Communion.  I had no stinkin’ idea what to do nor what to expect. I told myself I was simply going to be a good Christian and support Andy.

I remember walking in with Andy and right off the bat I was convinced I stood out like a sore thumb.

I see EVERYONE taking some water from this indoor fountain and doing their little “Catholic cross thing” on the way in.  I almost felt like I wasn’t supposed to walk in because I didn’t do that. I look around and see a couple women with veils on their head (Oh my goodness. What year is it?? And do I have to wear one??). We walked to sit in a pew and I see Andy do another weird little Catholic thing by bending down. I look around and apparently everyone else is doing this weird thing too. Again, sore thumb If you haven’t pick up on this already…everything in that Mass was completely foreign to me.  I remember standing there and everyone seemed to know exactly what to say, when to say it, and in the same cadence. I thought they all sounded like robots. I literally whispered to Andy… “HOW on EARTH do you remember all the things you are supposed to say??” I was convinced that it must take a lifetime to learn all of the different things to do at Mass.  Everyone kept saying things I didn’t know. Everyone kept doing their little cross thing- they seemed to do that a lot.  My gosh there are a lot of “rules”.  I distinctly remember when it came time to say the “Our Father” I was so excited because FINALLY it was a prayer I actually knew!! I don’t think I have ever said a prayer so firmly or loudly.

I remember when the Nicene Creed was being read Andy had grabbed a card with the prayer written on it so I could read off of it.  As the part about Mary was read, I see everyone BOW.  Oh. man. – my internal Bible-bashing radar was lighting up like a Christmas tree. Go read some John 14:6 you MARY WORSHIPPERS (I know, y’all go look it up real quick). We stood and knelt a couple more times.  Gosh, how long IS this thing?? I remember sitting there thinking that we had been there almost 30 minutes and no one had come up to give a “sermon” yet. When the priest finally gave his “speech” – it lasted like 15 minutes. I. was. floored. WHAT?! That’s it?? How do you learn anything with just THAT?? Gosh, these Catholics just don’t get it. Then came Communion… Andy looked over to me and explained that I could go up and cross my arms or I could stay seated but that I couldn’t take Communion.

Truth bomb: I was offended by this.

I was a Christian gosh dangit!  Why on earth could I not take Communion?? Pretentious Catholics. While everyone went up to take Communion, I sat alone in the pew.  I felt mortified.  Seriously, are they just trying to call out everyone who isn’t Catholic?? Why would anyone who isn’t Catholic want to come to Mass?? I grabbed the hymnal and tried to occupy myself by singing another one of the extreeemeeelllyyyy boring songs. I just sat and observed this odd ritualistic way to take Communion. I watched everyone go up as they were each given a piece of bread.  I saw some had it placed in their hands. Then I saw some had the bread put directly in their mouth.  Okay, that was weird. Then I see everyone take wine out of THE. SAME. CUP. What?! What is happening?? What century are we in?? Did they miss the memo about modern medicine?? When I left that Mass, I felt that I saw all I needed to see.  Clearly, everything that I had heard about Catholicism was right.

Understanding

Now, I may sound like I was this completely hateful/judgmental person.  I wasn’t, I promise. I am being brutally honest about how I felt even though I still respected every single person there. To this date, I don’t know if I have ever truly verbalized how I felt at that first Mass. Mind you, I fell in love with a man who I had NO doubt was one of the best, most faithful men of God I had ever met. He just happened to be raised Catholic.  I knew he had a deep and personal relationship with Christ, I just thought he was misguided and didn’t really understand what the Catholic Church taught.  I thought if he really understood, he would probably change his mind.  For years after that first time, I attended Mass with him because I figured I could just go and be with Jesus on my own – just as Christ would be with me in a regular church service.  I was willing to do that. I still refused to bow for the “Mary part”, I never crossed myself, and I always went silent during, “the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church” but I went.  I will tell you that Mass never became completely comfortable for me until I started going to RCIA and started to understand what Mass IS. It definitely wasn’t going to Mass that led me to Catholicism.  It never elicited an emotional response that let me know I was close with God there. My journey to Catholicism was much more than that but I hope this gives you a glimpse into both sides of the aisle.

Why is this important?

For those who are Non-Catholic Christians or even those with no faith– I get it. I totally do. I get why you may have huge misgivings with the Catholic Church. I literally felt the exact. same. way. If you can’t tell, I was pretty critical- scratch that- VERY critical. I understand why you think you have a full understanding of the Catholic faith based on what you have seen and heard. I also understand there are poor examples – and poor explainers – of Catholicism that likely contribute to this negative narrative. I will tell you, in my short life of being Catholic – it is already extremely apparent to me that there are many Catholics out there who give really misguided information of what the Church teaches and the theological (as well as biblical) basis for those teachings. This is NOT to say I know everything or even close to it (I make mistakes and am not a theologian) but I always strive to be as accurate and as well-versed in church theology as possible.

For those who are cradle Catholics, I think it is really important for you to understand where those on the other side of the aisle are coming from. My husband is a cradle Catholic. I think he would be honest to say, he struggles to understand a Protestant perspective at times. He is one that has been blessed with a lifelong, steadfast, faith in the Catholic Church (not perfect of course-but in a general sense). We so desperately need people like him BUT I am also here to say for those who have not had that same experience- that is okay. It is okay to have doubts. It is okay to have questions. If you have never really struggled in your faith, I applaud and commend you-sincerely. I have had a long, messy journey to mine.

I have had so many doubts, insecurities, and questions that I felt had no answers.

While I love the Catholic community on social media, I sometimes I worry it could cultivate a sense of alienation of those who may be struggling with doubts or questions.  We see all these Catholic accounts who just seem so “holy”, who pray the rosary every day, who never miss a Mass, who know and celebrate every feast day, who engage in these deep devotionals on a daily basis, etc. I love having those wonderful examples (and we need those examples!) BUT just because you aren’t there yet- it doesn’t make you less worthy. I can confidently say I am stronger and more confident in my faith not IN SPITE of my struggle but BECAUSE of my struggle, BECAUSE of my doubts, and BECAUSE of my questions. No journey is the “correct” way – wherever you are in your journey, I hope this was able to shed some light on a different perspective.

love,