You, too, are the Body of Christ (part one)

I’m sort of ashamed to admit it, but I grew up in a pretty serious Catholic bubble.  I went to Catholic schools my whole life and grew up in a heavily Irish neighborhood.  My Irish/Polish and Mexican families are teeming with Catholics.  I don’t think I knew anyone who wasn’t Catholic until I went to high school.  In college, I met a number of Muslims and Jews, thanks to an explicitly inter-religious campus ministry, but my exposure to non-Catholic Christianity was quite limited.  Before I met Mary, I didn’t know the difference between the terms “Episcopal” and “Episcopalian.”  This is all by way of introducing the slightly embarrassing fact that before this year, I had never attended a non-Catholic Christian worship service.

This limited exposure wasn’t by design; I chose to go to Catholic schools, but I didn’t realize that by choosing Catholic education I was also choosing an environment  predominantly populated by Catholics and thus, not by other Christians.  I didn’t really think about how myopic I was until my sister decided to get to know our neighborhood and began conducting what she called “theological field trips,” where she went around to the Protestant* Christian churches in the area to visit at a different worship service each week.  As she rattled off the list of churches within a few miles of our house, I realized that I had passed those addresses a million times, but never noticed them because I never had a reason to go in.  I could name 15 or 20 Catholic churches in a few miles radius (like I said, really Irish neighborhood), but couldn’t list a single non-Catholic church.

As I’ve said, I am ashamed of this bubble. I’m ashamed because it means that by explicit choice or not, I have surrounded myself with Catholics and failed to experience and learn about the other half of the Christian church.  Such a Catholic dominated environment is dangerous primarily because it can lead a person to see the Catholic perspective as the normative Christian perspective.  It reminds me, in a way, of Peggy McIntosh’s analysis of white privilege where she lists “arranging to be in the company of people of  [one’s] own race” as the first example of white privilege.  I’m certainly not saying that ecumenical relationships are nearly as complicated or oppressive as race relationships/racism, but like it or not, there is a power dynamic at play if I can choose to surround myself with Catholic friends, Catholic schools, Catholic churches, and Catholic theological perspectives with ease and rarely encounter the “other” voice of the Protestant Christian.

Coming to understand this “theological privilege” is difficult and surprising for me because I am someone who tries to constantly analyze the privilege and power at work in the world.  Racial and gendered privilege are especially poignant issues to me and I would never accept such a ignorance or lack of exposure in any other realm of my life.  So I decided a few months ago to simply attend a worship service at a church of a different denomination.  A few blocks from my apartment is an Episcopal church so I attended a low mass at 6pm on a Tuesday night.  (Imagine that!  A mass at a convenient time for people who work! Ok.  End of snark.)   I tried my very best not to make it a “museum visit,” where I looked at the service from a detached, analytic lens, but to experience it as it was–a spiritual and religious service.  I’m happy to report that my overwhelming reaction was the feeling of being welcomed, by the pastor, the community, and the fellowship following the service.

I’ll  use another post to reflect on the actual service itself, as this post is growing mammoth, but let me end with this point: not to make excuses, but I think, unfortunately, this Catho-centric experience is really common for Catholics.  Perhaps its the size of the Church, the extensive education system, or the Catholic pride some feel, but there are some undeniable power dynamics at work in the Christian Church.  I hope that both institutionally and individually, Catholics have the self awareness to analyze these power dynamics, but also that our Protestant brethren participate actively in that discussion.

To end, I’ll note that the title of this post comes from a phrase that a cheeky Jesuit I know uses.  He says the masses for a particular retreat I lead, a retreat that is populated by mostly Protestants.  When they approach him in the communion line, arms crossed for a blessing, instead of the usual “Bless you in the name of the Father…” or “May Jesus live in your heart,” he says “You, too, are the Body of Christ,” with particular emphasis on the “too.”  When I realized what he was saying, and how refreshing that blessing might sound to a person deliberately excluded from sharing the Eucharist, I was struck by its spirit of inclusion and I hope to keep that strike that same spirit throughout my studies and theological exchanges with all Christians.

*For lack of a better one, I’ll use the term “Protestant” to describe the half of the Christian Church that isn’t Catholic, even though it defines those Christians in terms of the Catholic Church, and I do so with the understanding that this term lumps in about a billion Christians with a great diversity of beliefs into one word.  If others have a suggestion to describe what I’m getting at, I’d love to hear it.

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5 thoughts on “You, too, are the Body of Christ (part one)

  1. Thank you so much for this, Carmen! It’s a topic I’d love to keep talking with you about. I’m going to post the things that come to mind immediately, and maybe think about a more systematic response later.

    -I so much appreciate your desire and effort to move outside the Catholic bubble, but I think it’s worth noting that the Protestant bubble can be pretty huge, too. I went to Episcopal schools and knew almost nothing about Catholicism until college. It’s also been sobering for me to realize, in the past few years, how anti-Catholic older generations of my own family (low church Episcopalians) have been. One of my uncles described my grandfather, who was a much-beloved priest in Louisville, as believing that “every man was a brother, no matter his race…unless he was Catholic.” One of my older relatives, when I told him I was enrolling in an MTS program at Notre Dame, responded, “Well, just make sure you don’t become a papist.” And then he laughed. Because that stuff’s HILARIOUS.

    -I love your story about the “cheeky” Jesuit. Honestly, while I understand the theological reasons for denying the Eucharist to non-Catholics*, and while I would never receive Eucharist at a Catholic service, it is hard for me. The celebration of the Eucharist and the idea of the Body of Christ are central to my theology and spirituality (I chose a passage from 1 Cor 12 to be read at my wedding), and not being able to participate fully in communion at a Catholic service is always a source of alienation and grief, no matter how welcoming the community, edifying the sermon, or spiritually rich the worship is otherwise. What a lovely way to say, “You are the body of Christ,” not *potentially,* not *maybe, if you convert,* but already and right now.

    *And by “understand” I mean “can’t recall, but remember understanding when they were discussed in Max Johnson’s liturgy class.”

    -A topic that might be worth considering here: I can’t count the number of Episcopalians I know who’ve been received from the Catholic church. I think this is a hard and sensitive subject, but one worth talking about. (But not right now, because I have to go to bed.)

    • It’s odd that I’m comforted by other Christian bubbles….but I am. I’m glad it’s not just Catholics who find themselves in bubbles; maybe it means people will be more self aware and willing to break their bubbles (hopefully?).

      It’s funny–I’m not really a Christian who finds the Eucharist really central to my theology (heretical, I know). But hearing that cheeky Jesuit welcome people who otherwise are excluded from the Eucharist–that *made* the Eucharist more meaningful to me. Wonderful if that would be true for others too.

      Do you have thoughts on the term “Protestant?”

      • I don’t think it’s odd. I think knowing that bubbles exist everywhere helps normalize it a little. Maybe it’s a good thing to have the luxury of growing up thinking of your tradition as “normal.” In that case, coming to know other traditions doesn’t mean you were a bad person for not knowing about them before, just that you’re growing into a fuller sense of what it is to be a human.

        The term “Protestant” doesn’t really bother me. All the terms are so bad, though. I can be either “Episcopalian,” which I take to mean “really into bishops and hierarchy,” and that’s…not at all what I’d choose to define my faith by. Or I can be “Anglican,” which, again, doesn’t really work if I parse it too much. I’m thrilled to share a tradition with Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Donne, but I’m really not out to “build Jerusalem / In England’s green and pleasant land,” even if that hymn was my high school song (and my favorite of all time, God help me). Plus, you know. Colonialism. “Mainline Protestant” implies that all of those evangelicals with their praise bands and Starbucks inside their churches (Side note: coffee is self-evidently the glue that holds congregations together, so why do people sneer at the idea of trying to procure GOOD coffee for this purpose?) are deviant and wrongheaded. (I should write a blog post about all the condescending remarks about evangelicals I’ve heard from the pulpit. Get that off my chest.)

        When I, personally, think about what it means to be a Protestant, I think about the founders of the Protestant Revolution, who (at least, according to what I’ve been taught) thought of themselves as faithful dissenters within a church that is, ultimately, unified in Christ. I like the idea of being a dissenter, someone who protests; and I tend to think that protesting is a vital piece of my job as a Christian. The holy little-c-catholic church can only exist as a reality when all of its voices are heard. (It’s taken me a long time to work out theologically exactly why I felt called to be such a pain in the ass.)

        How do you feel about “Catholic”? What about “Roman Catholic”?

  2. Haha, under those definitions, maybe I should be a Protestant. (Luke did call me a crypto-Lutheran once). And I think that is exactly what so many PhD seminars on method are getting at–the theology of being called to be an ecclesiastical pain in the ass.

    I don’t particularly love the “Roman” part of Roman Catholicism because it conjurs up a few specific things: militarism and imperialism (boo), Western Europe exclusively (double boo), and papacy (mixed feelings, especially with Francis at the helm). And I don’t think I realized until I left the Catholic bubble a little more how negatively the Church is viewed outside the bubble. But perhaps that’s another question entirely.

    But holy Jesus, there are churches with Starbucks INSIDE???

  3. Pingback: You, too, are the Body of Christ (part two) | 606 Howard Street

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