Christian, Library, Memoir

Catholics and secreting away to Mass

Baptized in secret

I was baptized at the St. Joseph Catholic Church in Tacoma, a Slovakian parish. I wouldn’t have guessed it growing up, but apparently there were enough of us around Tacoma in the 1950s to support a stone building and vestments. I’ve looked and can’t find a certificate of that heavenly commitment: I’d like to see if Dad was there, or if he signed it. His family was sure the Catholics got it wrong, though I can’t remember Dad worrying about it much. I’ve never been to St. Joseph since being baptized, but know they quit speaking to Slovaks and now utter the homily in Latin only. It’s not about numbers. 

I was twenty-something and contacted the church to ask what it meant that I was baptized there, what it meant for them and for me. The priest kindly carved time from crafting his weekly homily to send me a letter – en anglaise – explaining that, yes, I am Catholic, and, yes, I am free to avail myself to all the wonders of the Church of Rome. I didn’t seek an explanation and assumed it meant I was Catholic. That’s what it said, right?

Secret university mass

Never talking to any Catholics I knew, I began going to Mass before university classes on Fridays. I spoke nary a word there to anyone, and no one talked to me. As an American kid, growing up in suburbia and visiting the local Presbyterian or Lutheran church whenever Mom decided I was going, the Mass was otherworldly to me, a crack in the ceiling shining light onto something hidden. Talking would ruin that, I thought, and I didn’t want it disturbed by something so pedestrian as, well, pedestrians. I felt settled there, my heart and mind resting in harmony. 

I took the missive from St. Joseph- my understanding of it anyway – as an official word from G, interpreting it to mean I could take the Eucharist with other poor and broken souls at eight in the morning. I never questioned my participation, nor did the priest who offered the Host.

The Georgia pines

Through jobs and careers, I ended up in middle Georgia, working at a nuclear plant. If you don’t know, Middle Georgia IS NOT a Catholic stronghold, and my family and I attended the Vidalia First Baptist Church. I was an outlier there, not as a Catholic, but simply because I didn’t agree that, as one member described it, all Catholics were ‘logs for the fire.’ That, and I asked questions. Lots of questions. 

I’ve always had a religious leaning toward the mysterious, and, even as a member of First Baptist Church, I would sneak off to the woods on Friday nights to Mass, taking up my old routine, never meeting anyone and only going for the Eucharist. I laughed each time I went: in most Southern cities, the First Baptist spire pierces the sky, as the protestors reach out toward heaven. But don’t raise your hands: we don’t do that here. The Catholics, here, humble souls, met in a tiny church outside of town, surrounded by loblolly pines and crickets. 

The church was empty on this night except for me and the priest. He walked over to ask me if I would do the reading that night. I should have said yes or asked about the weather and got on with it, but, suffering from the affliction of always having to explain myself, I said I’d be happy to, but he should know, if it means anything, that I’m not a full Catholic

Choking a little, he asked, “What does that mean…full Catholic?” 

“I’ve never been confirmed,” I said, “just baptized.” A thunderclap rattled the windows.

I couldn’t tell if he was amused or pained or both. “That doesn’t mean you’re not a full Catholic.” He clenched his teeth, looking like I imagine the nuns did, rearing their rulers to correct my Slovak-speaking mother in English class. “There is no part-Catholic and no full-Catholic. An adult who isn’t confirmed, isn’t a Catholic.”

I shrugged my shoulders and sat for Mass. At the appointed time, I went forward for the Eucharist, and the priest shook his head, no. I think it was a no. It could have been a ‘get thee behind me Satan’ except I don’t think Catholics say ‘thee.’

I sat back down, unsatisfied, and chased the priest after the service, again explaining myself, because that always makes it right. It didn’t, and I caught him just before he slipped through a doorway. He spun and held up his hands. “Whatever you were told,” he said, “or however you understood it, it’s wrong.” As I write it now, I wonder why he didn’t put his hand on my shoulder and ask me into his office for a smoke, where he could explain the doctrine to me. But, maybe that’s another story. 

And that was it. I never went back. 

I continued to read Catholic theology, and I still think something wonderful happens at Mass, something quiet, without words, something that slips in between prayers when you’re not expecting it. So today, enjoying a few days of vacation, I went back to my old plan, slipping out while everyone sleeps, to attend Morning Mass at Holy Family. It was wonderful. And no one talked to me.

For more general Catholic stuff, you might like to read the Jerusalem Bible. It’s called a Catholic Bible because it incorporates the apocrypha. I went to a Bible school for a time in Cannon Beach, and one of the speakers saw me toting my five-pound Bible one day. “A Jerusalem Bible,” he said, and I wasn’t sure if he was happy about it. I beat him to the punch. “What do academics think about the Jerusalem Bible?” This Protestant Evangelical in a room filled with young Protestant Evangelicals beamed a grin and grabbed my Bible. “This,” he said, paging through my notes, “is one the best Bible’s ever.” He looked at me, nodding and still smiling. “Good choice.” Then his evangelicalism took over: “Keep your nose in that thing.”

Go here to read any of the Jerusalem Bible. You can read the entire thing for free though there will be enough pop-ups asking for money that you might pony up just to be left alone.

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