Posted by davekeller on April 19th, 2006
The Saturday before Palm Sunday I took a break from researching in my campus office and went for a walk. On a whim, I wanted to see if the nearby Catholic parish had posted its Easter service schedule. I asked a friendly woman doing some work about the church grounds about when upcoming services would be. Relatively quickly, the lady picked up on me not being a Catholic. She stopped what she was doing as we went inside to locate a printed bulletin. Due to her kindness, my idle curiosity turned into my next stage of commitment, that of mentally planning on attending.
By mid-week I was wavering somewhat. Since telling someone my plans tends to increase the likelihood of carrying through with them, I mentioned them in some correspondence with Brad. He helpfully wrote back about what the main services were about and provided me some of the needed motivation. Still, I missed some interesting opportunities. By Friday evening, I excused myself from whatever plans my LDS room-mates were making that might include me. When I volunteered that I was going to attend the Good Friday Liturgy, to my surprise, one of them wanted to accompany me!
We arrived at the church, fortuitously at the same time as the Catholic member I know best was also entering. Meeting a familiar face helped me acclimatize to unfamiliar territory. I ended up going to the Easter Vigil on Saturday night and the Easter Mass on Sunday. Late Friday night I viewed a newly purchased copy of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. This movie deserves its own blog entry, but it helped set the mood for my Catholic themed Easter celebration.
There was so much to take in that I will have to limit my observations to the few subjects below. For Mormons that might be as clueless as I was (and still am) about attending other church’s services this will act as a sort of how to guide. I hope our Catholic readership will help correct my terminology and explain some of the significance of things I have missed. I will throw in a couple of controversial comparisons to keep things entertaining.
Attendance and Dress
The secret to going to a different church is to try to blend in. One of the stories Rich, a poster at CA, told me was the one about an LDS person coming to church all dressed up while furiously taking notes like he was witnessing something top secret. Needless to say is behavior stood out to the regulars who dress somewhat informally. However on Easter, you definitely want to wear your Sunday best. The LDS visitor above could have gotten a fair idea without going to the trouble about what goes on in special Masses by looking up a good liturgy site like this one.
Catholic masses are a change of pace from the more sedentary LDS services. You have to stay alert and be ready to respond back to the priest or to a lay person reading a scripture text. This reminds me a little of the chorus response to King Benjamin’s tower address described in Mosiah 2-5. The service switches gears a lot between praying, standing, kneeling, singing, and sitting. There is a program booklet that helps you stay on top of things, but the key is to pay attention to what every one else is doing.
Mass and the Temple
I highly recommend that Mormons attend a Catholic service at least once in their lives. I don’t know why attending another church is perceived to be so hard. When I served a mission, getting people to believe in the Book of Mormon was the easy part compared to getting people to come to church. Besides expanding one’s horizons, in a roundabout way I think it can contextualize the LDS temple experience. Historically, I wonder if there is a connection between the proto-temple ceremonies that LDS speculate that early Christians participated in and later liturgy. Besides a general comparison that both employ the use of symbolism as a teaching method, I won’t say more here, but at least one BYU Studies article explores this idea in The Catholic Liturgy and the Mormon Temple.
Making a more apples to apples comparison, the Catholic services were much more visual than the weekly LDS sacrament (in LDS parlance this refers almost exclusively to the remembrance of Jesus through bread and water) meeting. For example, the Easter Vigil played on themes of light and darkness. Dim lights conveyed a sense of gloom that must have accompanied the early Christians as they mourned the death of their Saviour with little hope. Candles, representing the light of Christ, helped me visualize what only existed as a scripture metaphor. Newly baptized adults received this light and then were charged with sharing it with others as they lit everybody else’s candles.
Friday some of the chapel’s usual adornments were missing and new sacramental emblems weren’t to be blessed during the commemoration of the space between Christ’s death and resurrection. The whole cadence again remind me of King Benjamin’s speech were he impresses fear and trembling in his people for their sins. He lets them contemplate for awhile what it would like to be eternally unrecognized with their Creator. The distress is temporary, but the bitter only makes the news that there is a name by which the people can be saved all the sweeter. Even so, the Catholic services helped me ponder what it would be like to have Jesus not triumph for awhile, which impressed on me the magnitude of my dependence on Him.
If I understand things right, Easter Vigil is the preferred time to baptize adults. The adult conversion process is more deliberated than it generally is for the LDS church in comparison. Some have compared the RCIA classes that a catechumen takes in preparation for baptism to the 6 months or so of Gospel Essentials an LDS convert goes through after baptism to prepare for the temple. The persons to be baptized each publicly affirmed basic beliefs about following Christ and the church. In contrast, such affirmations are conducted in private for LDS baptismal candidates. Both faiths handle questions of worthiness in private, though. The timing of the baptism is perfect opportunity to reflect on how baptism symbolizes the death and resurrection of Christ. The convert puts away the old life of sin and begins as a new creature in Christ.
The baptismal prayer is much like the one used in the LDS ritual, but does not use the “Having been commissioned of Jesus Christ” clause (see D&C 20:73). The similarity in prayers, of course, does not necessarily mean that an LDS baptizer intends to do the same thing as a Catholic baptizer does; hence there are grounds for insisting converts from Mormonism undergo a baptism considered valid. While the procedure in the LDS rite calls for complete immersion, the method used in the Catholic service was to pour water thrice over the forehead. After the baptism the new members were given a new white garment with instructions to keep it spotless for the judgment day. This reflects yet more shared symbolism between the two faiths although the usage takes different forms. The priest had the new initiates stand, simultaneously confirming them with an extended hand.
I would write and compare more about confirmation and baptism but there are so many details I don’t understand yet. I hope to see some clarifications from our Catholic readers. For instance, I would like to know what the significance is of the sprinkling rite. I will say that the initiates radiated an inner joy. The presence of sponsors and family and the coincidence with the biggest Christian holy day must have left a lasting impression on the new Catholics, who could then partake of the Communion for the first time.
On Easter Sunday, I missed my own regularly scheduled meeting with my ward to attend the Catholic service. While Friday and Saturday’s events were held in a smallish chapel filled to capacity, the Sunday Mass was held in a campus ballroom. I was amazed at the difference in attendance levels. Contrast that to the opposite effect going on in the local LDS student wards, which are largely depleted on Easter. I was also impressed with the diversity of nationalities represented and languages spoken in one part of the Mass. At another point small children came forward and were blessed by the priest, which was touching. The scripture readings about the resurrection of Christ were the part I most connected with, releasing me from thought experiment I described earlier. I did have to make that official by attending a late starting LDS service where I was allowed to partake of communion. While I couldn’t fully participate in the Catholic devotions, nevertheless I enjoyed my experiences. I am thankful to all those who helped orient me, let me join in prayer, shared their musical talents, and helped make a memorable Easter for me.