Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How Many Masses It Takes to Become Catholic

The exterior of St Peter's in the Loop
My freshman year at Wheaton College - immersed in a vibrant evangelical Christian community - I found myself with a surprising desire: to go to Mass.

Mind you, I was still firmly in the evangelical camp and far from thinking that I needed to become Catholic. Yet the desire was very clear.

I didn't know about the parish in Wheaton yet, and I didn't have a car anyway. But I did know about St Peter's in the Loop, a Catholic church in Chicago close to the train station.

I suspect almost every single Wheaton College student of the last few years has walked by St Peter's: it's right on Madison Ave in downtown Chicago between the Ogilvie train station and Millennium Park. When I noticed it on one of my first trips to Chicago, right away I drew inspiration from its massive stone crucifix outside: it always seemed to me to be a great spiritual bulwark, a great sign that Jesus was present right there in downtown Chicago.

Combined with the fact that they offered Mass on Sunday evenings (I still went to a protestant church Sunday mornings), it seemed like the easiest way for me to go to Mass. So every few months, usually by myself, I hopped on the train into Chicago and caught Sunday evening Mass at St Peter's in the Loop.

But why in the world did I want to go to Mass? The explanation starts back to when I was just starting grade school:

My Protestant parents had become increasingly unsatisfied with our local public schools which my older siblings had attended and decided to send me and my younger brother to local Catholic schools 1st through 12th grade. And although I'm sure my parents didn't think about it or its possible implications, this meant that I would attend Mass regularly for years.

Both the K-8 school and the high school I attended had school-wide Mass once a month, which meant about eight Masses a year. Eight multiplied by the twelve years of school comes to 96 Masses. The high school offered optional Mass on Friday mornings during Lent, and since I played the piano for the school's Mass music team, I also attended those Masses, which adds another 24 Masses or so. The summer before my senior year of high school, I was invited to play the piano for a local parish's LifeTeen music team, which I did during my senior year of high school, adding about 50 more Masses that year. Add in a hand full more for a few weddings, funerals, retreats, etc, and I think a good estimate of the number of Masses I attended before going to Wheaton College is 180. (For more on why I was on two Catholic music teams as an evangelical, see My Faith Story)

180 Masses represents a little more than three years of Sunday and Holy Days of Obligation Mass attendance. All of that was spread over 12 years, with my Mass attendance becoming much more frequent later in high school.

As you can see, the reason I was attending Mass at all growing up was either directly or indirectly related to my attendance of the Catholic schools. I never just went to Mass on Sundays for the heck of it; I wasn't Catholic, so why would I? The only church services that I went to for the purpose of spiritual nourishment (maybe some social reasons were mixed in there too; I did enjoy the people there after all) were protestant. This meant that once I left Oregon for Wheaton College in Illinois, I no longer had an extrinsic reason to go to Mass.

And it was in removing Mass entirely from my life that just how important it had become to me was made clear. I had been unaware of it for 12 years, but Mass had actually become a very meaningful part of my life that, once gone, was missed.

Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College
But so what? So I went to Mass growing up and found myself wanting to go to Mass as an adult. Sounds like Proverbs 22.6 a la first-time-away-from-home college nostalgia for my childhood. But remember, while I went to about three years worth of normal Mass attendance spread over twelve years (with a good chunk of that in my last year of high school), I was going to protestant church services every single Sunday from birth onwards. Coupled with my high involvement in our family's protestant church's high school youth group (which meant not only Sunday mornings but Wednesday evenings and other events), I went to far and away many more protestant worship services than Mass. I also explicitly rejected major Catholic teachings at this time, including the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

So given my upbringing, and with all the opportunities given at Wheaton College throughout the week in addition to Sunday mornings, why did I feel like I was missing something?

Let's face it: contemporary evangelical worship is pretty thin, and I knew from experience that there was something better out there. I had tasted and seen - and couldn't pretend that I hadn't. I think most evangelicals don't really know what else there could be. Most evangelicals sing some songs and hear a sermon; that's all fine and good, and both have their place in the Mass, but there's nothing transcendent, mystical, or honestly even really that prayerful about it. This is of course a broad generalization, and yes, there might be some praying, but its not the same kind of prayer that is the Mass. In most contemporary evangelical worship, silence is avoided; there's nothing like the ConfiteorKyrie, Sanctus, or the Gloria; heck, most evangelical worship services don't even include the Lord's Prayer, let alone the Lord's Supper.

When I was only going to contemporary worship services, I longed for the depth of the Mass. I didn't understand most of it (and I'm confident I still don't), but I knew enough to know that the Mass was saturated with deep spiritual meaning. That's what's so great about the Mass: it's so full and rich with meaning that one can dig oneself into it one's whole life without ever getting to the bottom of it. This is because the Mass contains, expresses, even re-presents the deepest mysteries of our faith. Its repetition is not boring but grounding. And I mean more than just providing comfort through the familiar: in praying the Mass over and over again one wades further and further into the deepest truths of the faith.

Not all evangelicals have adopted the contemporary worship style, but most have. The churches I've gone to that haven't are perhaps somewhat better, but have just made up a liturgy relatively recently that doesn't have anything close to the deep meaning or roots of the Mass. I did attend an Anglican church for a few months in college, which was somewhat refreshing since much of it was verbatim the same as the Mass; but it seemed that we were only pretending: if I was going to be worshiping like that, I might as well go back to the source, the Catholic Church.

Most evangelicals have never gone to Mass, and if they have, maybe only a few times. In addition to seeming very foreign and strange, they probably had one or both of the following reactions:

First, it probably seemed spiritually dead. This was probably partly because many of the Catholics next to them in the pews were spiritually dead (as you'll find anywhere), but I think part of it is also because many evangelicals have been taught to associate emotion and visible passion with a real encounter with God, which they won't usually see at a Mass. By the time I was in college I had gone to enough Masses, and without prejudice since I had gone since I was young, to know that that wasn't the case and that in fact the Mass was beautifully rich with meaning, and perhaps even more spiritually alive than contemporary worship.

Jan van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece, 1432 
Second, they probably thought that "this isn't for me". They didn't "get it" right away, and so they'll just move on. I think this may be the case because evangelical worship tends - nay, is now specifically designed - to be the type of thing that someone can "get" right away. That's the opposite of the Mass, and thank heavens it cannot be comprehended so quickly. One cannot just "get" God, Jesus, or the Bible; and one cannot "get" the Mass right away precisely because it is the full expression of the Christian faith - something that is indeed alien to the world. One must be drawn into it, and reshaped, perhaps slowly. Instead of being a form of worship conformed to our culture, the Mass conforms and reorients us, and for the rest of our lives. In other words, if Mass makes you feel uncomfortable/bored/impatient, maybe that reflects more on you than on Mass, which might mean that Mass is exactly where you need to be.

I probably learned more Catholic doctrine while at Wheaton College than I did in 12 years of Catholic school. But it was during my time in Catholic schools that I was drawn into the mysterious, life-changing world of the Mass - and was left with an experience that I just couldn't shake. The Mass kept me spiritually linked to the Catholic Church while I tried to sort out doctrinal and historical truth claims. And when I finally received the Body and Blood of our Lord, after 16 years of going down the communion line with arms crossed on my chest for a blessing, I knew that I was finally home.


  1. " Instead of being a form of worship conformed to our culture, the Mass conforms and reorients us, and for the rest of our lives. In other words, if Mass makes you feel uncomfortable/bored/impatient, maybe that reflects more on you than on Mass, which might mean that Mass is exactly where you need to be." Yes! Very well put.

    Your posts about Wheaton always catch my eye, because I have a niece there right now. She didn't grow up going to Catholic school, but she did live in Poland the first five years of her life (my brother and his wife were there with Campus Crusade). Who knows how God might lead, right? :o)

  2. Wheaton could be a very good place for her to come to the Catholic Church. There are a number of a really great Catholic students on campus. Email me if you'd be interested in hearing more (bcmillegan@gmail.com)

  3. Thanks for sharing your view of the Mass and how you came to be drawn to it.

  4. Brantly,
    Did Wheaton teach you about the theology of the mass? Did you ever discuss your going to mass with any of your teachers at Wheaton?

  5. hey Anon,

    Great questions.

    Wheaton didn't teach me very much about the theology of the Mass. A few things related to the Mass might have come up here and there, but it wasn't ever really talked about specifically or in detail.

    I don't know that I did really talk to any professors about me going to Mass for most of Wheaton, but just because I don't think it would've come up. By the time I was becoming Catholic (Junior/Senior year), some probably knew, but as a part of the greater context of me becoming Catholic.

    Why are you curious about these things?

  6. Brantly,
    When i read stories of protestants "converting" to Roman Catholicism i don't hear about any discussions about Roman Catholic beliefs and how they compare to the NT. That's why I asked if you had talked to any of the professors there.
    The Roman Catholic will tell the Protestant that this is the way the church did it from the beginning. In reality this is not the case at all in the NT nor historically. Take the idea of the Roman Catholic priest. There is no such office in the NT. There are no sacramental priests in the NT. Same goes for the theology of the mass. The Last supper was not a sacrament that some how imparts grace but is a ritual that Christians are to remember (what Christ did for them) when they come together. It is to remind us what He did and give thanks for it.
    If the NT Christians were celebrating the mass, why is there no mention that this is some kind of sacrament that would require a sacramental priest?

  7. Your second point about the Mass reorienting us is spot on -- Beautifully articulated as always.


  8. Hey Anon,
    The NT actually does talk about priests (presbyters, often literally translated as elders) and bishops (episkopoi, often literally translated as overseers). Jesus gave the Lord's Supper to his apostles. Regarding the real presence, you obviously have the words of Christ, "This is body" etc. In addition, you have indications of it in the writings of Paul:

    1 Corinthians 10.16-17
    The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

    1 Corinthians 11.27-29
    Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.

    If the Eucharist is Jesus himself, then you are certainly receiving grace, since Jesus is "full of grace and truth" (Jn 1.14)

  9. Regarding history of belief in the real presence, see: http://youngevangelicalandcatholic.blogspot.com/2011/10/1500-years-of-universal-gospel.html

  10. Hi,
    I am currently a junior in high school that is a Catholic student interested in attending and playing soccer at Wheaton. I was wondering about how Catholics fit in at Wheaton. While I am Catholic, I do not mind (in fact I like) worshiping God with the evangelical Protestants in addition to going to Catholic mass. What I am a little bit worried about it how Catholics are perceived on campus by both students and faculty. Are they accepted as just another denomination, or are they judged as if their beliefs are completely different? Do you have any advice for me?
    Thanks for your wonderful post!

    1. Hey Anon! Great questions. I could give a perspective, but since I haven't been at Wheaton since the Spring of 2010, I thought I'd pass this on to a Catholic friend of mine who just graduated in December. I emailed her this link, so hopefully she will respond soon. God bless!

  11. Hey! I just graduated from Wheaton in December - as far as my experience there, it is not hard at all to fit in as a Catholic (as long as you are comfortable with Evangelical culture - which it sounds like you are!). There are definitely a few people at Wheaton who are really put-off by Catholicism, but most people are just pretty interested or they just don't really care that much. I would say that overall, Wheaton is a great place to be as a Catholic! I wouldn't have wanted to go anywhere else.

  12. As a Catholic, I would also like to point out that it often is the case that the Mass is in fact much less prayerful than many Protestant services - not intrinsically, but in reality. Homilies may or may not talk at all about the Scripture readings, or about God or Jesus Christ, priests often rush through the prayers and the music is often so bad that you couldn't even turn it into a prayer if you wanted to. Not to mention the fact that the majority of the people in the congregation do not even attempt to sing or pray along with the responses (at least not the Gloria or the Sanctus, which you mentioned), because so many of them do not even realize that God wants a personal encounter with them. If you have already developed a relationship with Christ and a commitment to prayer, then even in the midst of all this you can still - miraculously, and by the grace of God, in my opinion - find beauty in it all, no doubt in the Eucharist, but sometimes I struggle with longing for the depth of relationship with God and with each other that most Evangelicals have, even if the structure of their worship services may be somewhat superficial.

    Not trying to disagree with what you're saying - I do think there is something truly amazing about the Mass, that keeps me coming back amid so much frustration and disappointment. But I wouldn't dare call the worship of Evangelicals "superficial" or even "thin" in light of how miserable our own Church is. They are obviously doing something right and I wish there was more genuine ecumenical dialog through which we could all benefit.

  13. Wow, great! Thank you so much for the thorough answer. I am glad to hear that Catholics fit in there because Wheaton is still one of my top choices!

    Thanks again :)

  14. Hello,

    There is nothing thin about the relationship with Christ no matter what faith tradition you come from. The Catholic Church is both human and divine,just like Christ. Don't disregard the Catholic Church because of the human failing of the Church. The mystery and grace of God is unconditional and in our human weakness and failings God continues to work abundantly.

    Imagine if we were one united Church again and did our humanly best to be faithful to the message of Christ what kind of impact we could have together on this world.

    In Christ!

  15. "...and the music is often so bad that you couldn't even turn it into a prayer if you wanted to."

    Having been to many, many evangelical churches, I can assure you the music is just as bad at most of them as it seems to be at most Ordinary Form Catholic churches.

    Depressing, really, considering the beautiful history of church music, both Protestant and Catholic.