You Can’t Go Rome Again

A former Roman Catholic revisits the altar candles of an old flame.

It had not dawned on me until the day of the wedding that I would be walking into a Roman Catholic Mass, complete with all the bells and whistles.

It was the wedding of an old friend. I knew he and his bride were both Roman Catholic, and yet I hadn’t realized the service would be a full Mass. I was raised Roman Catholic but became an Anglican nine years ago, having suffered through a long spiritual drought in the interim. It’s been years since I attended a Roman Catholic Mass. But I figured I’d be able to jump back in with relative ease. After all, it was the tradition I was raised in, and services in my adopted church follow a very similar structure. I figured it would be a piece of cake.

But it was weird. Not bad-weird, necessarily. Just weird. It was like seeing an ex-girlfriend from a long time ago. It’s been long enough that you no longer have bad feelings about the breakup — you may even feel like you could be friends — but there’s always that little weirdness somewhere in the background, because you still remember what her hair smelled like and somehow that just makes the whole thing seem awkward.

I was 22 when I officially left the Roman Church, but things had been rocky for a long time before that. It wasn’t always like that though. I remember a lot of love and light in the early days of my faith, when my father would take me to church as a child and I would experience the pageantry of the Mass. I was in love with the Eucharist by the time I was seven. The whole thing was magical, in the way a first love often is. I remember the goose bumps I felt the first time I received Holy Communion. It was like a first kiss, sweet and a little clumsy. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was doing and where I should put my hands. But I loved every second of it. I learned so much about God and about myself from that moment and a thousand others like it. True love is a freeing experience, and the love I felt in the Church set me free by opening my heart and my imagination to possibilities I would never have otherwise considered.

But as with many young loves, the flames eventually died down. I think it’s fair to say we grew apart, me and Rome. By the time I was 14, I was becoming something of a radical, at least in my own head. I couldn’t understand why the Church was so old fashioned in so many ways. I was uncomfortable with the all male nature of the priesthood, for instance, and the supposed infallibility of the pope, which I believed to be totalitarian and oppressive.

But those were just excuses, really. When I look back with the advantage of a little bit of age, I see there are reasons why the Roman Church functions like she does. I still may not agree with all of those reasons, but I realize now that I never really bothered to ask why she did what she did. I wasn’t interested in why. What I was interested in was exploring other options, seeing other people. By the time I was 15 I’d decided I was done with Roman Catholicism for good.

For a couple of years, I drifted. I became a sort of spiritual free agent. I played the field. I’d have a little Wicca here, a little Buddhism there, whatever I was in the mood for. It was fun and exciting, at first. But after awhile, it all seemed to feel flat. I started to realize I was just using these traditions for my own gain. I wasn’t really getting to know them, at the deeper level — at the level at which I could have actually been shaped by them, at the level at which true love could become a possibility.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible talks about the love a husband and a wife share in their marriage and compares it to the love that lives between Jesus and the Church. The passage says that husbands and wives should “be subject to one another.” True love isn’t about me getting everything I want. It isn’t about the fuzzy warm feelings and all the sexy sparks that go off when the chemistry is just right. Those things are wonderful, but they aren’t true love. True love requires sacrifice. In marriage, men and women are called to submit to one another, to put the other person’s well-being ahead of their own. In the case of the husband, he’s supposed to love his wife “just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her.” In other words, he’s supposed to be willing to die for her. Love isn’t easy.

It’s in that kind of deep and patient knowing, which comes not all at once but develops over years, that two people are able to receive the fruit of true love in the form of a deep and abiding joy, a sense of wholeness and connectedness that allows us to face any obstacle together.

This was not the kind of love I knew as a young Roman Catholic. It certainly wasn’t the kind of love I knew during those years when I flirted with every religion but gave my heart to none.

In my early 20s, I first came to know the Anglican tradition by way of a little Episcopal parish near where I grew up and another one in my college town. Like all great loves, this one found me by surprise, when I was least expecting it. There was so much that was familiar about it, from the things that the priest wore to the way that the servers walked in procession down the aisles, and yet it was clear that this was something different, that Anglicanism was something I’d have to approach on its own terms. Because she’s not exactly the same — she has her own quirks and nuances, and to treat her as if she and Rome were interchangeable would be as wrong as treating two women as if they were carbon copies of one another.

It’s been almost a decade since then, and I can’t say that it’s always been easy. There’s a great deal of turmoil in my church at the moment, and I have to admit I’ve wondered wistfully sometimes about what it would be like to move on yet again, to find that ever-elusive perfect church where I could finally have all that I want. But that wouldn’t yield true love, only more blind alleys.

And so I’ve stayed faithful to Anglicanism, and she has shown me that there are deeper and sweeter ways of loving than I might have ever realized. She’s shown me the beauty of liturgy, the power of scripture, and the grace and hope that come time and time again in forgiveness and renewal of the spirit. I’ve made sacrifices for her, sacrifices I was never willing to make in the past. I’ve had to be vulnerable, to live in pain at times, and to realize my own limits — that I am not God’s gift to the Church, but rather that the Church in all her splendor is God’s gift to me.

Given all of this, it was hard to go back on the day of my friend’s wedding and to say the old prayers again as if nothing had changed.

It was a beautiful service. The bride was gorgeous in her white gown. The groom was all smiles, glowing with pride. And the whole thrust of the service was focused on the overwhelming love of God that is reflected in marriage. The priest gets high marks for how adeptly he walked us through the significance of each part of the ritual.

It was good, but it just wasn’t … home.

I remembered many of the prayers but I felt weird about saying them. I was self-conscious about the way I crossed myself, with the extra tap at the end that some Anglicans use and Roman Catholics never do. I had to think about needing to pause in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer and not launch into saying “for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory,” lest I be instantly recognized as a Protestant infiltrator.

When it came time for Communion, I stayed in my pew rather than going up to receive. I stayed put out of respect for the Roman Church’s rule that “non-Catholics” like myself not participate. Not that anyone would’ve known or even cared all that much if I’d broken the rule, but I would’ve known and it would’ve been awkward and somehow wrong, like an adulterous kiss shared with an old flame.

I don’t harbor any ill will toward the Roman Catholic Church. In fact, I’m grateful for all I received from her. I would not be the man I am today if she had not dutifully and lovingly nurtured me in my youth. She will always be a part of me, and I’d like to think that in some small way I’ll always be a part of her. There is a familiarity there, a bond of love and affection that will always linger in the background for us both.

But it was never going to be right between us. I know that now. And I suspect that deep down she knows it too.

As I was standing there in that wedding, reciting the prayers of my childhood, singing the familiar words of the hymns, I longed for home. I longed for The Book of Common Prayer and the majesty of its language. I longed for the altar rail and the common cup. I longed for the chance to walk forward to receive the Body and Blood of Jesus, and to be embraced again by the one who I chose because she first chose me, the Anglican Communion. She is home for me now. She is far from perfect. She drives me absolutely crazy sometimes. But she is mine, and I am hers.

Article © 2010 by J-Tron