My Atlanta brother and his wife came for a visit this weekend, giving rise to the usual lively and good natured religious discussions about our faith (Catholic) and theirs (Pentecostal). Net result? Thanks be to God for my wonderful brothers, especially this one, who with his wife, is so open to discussion. He makes me grow in understanding every time we talk.
We Catholics have an unsurpassed treasure in the fullness of the Truth and the graces that come through the One, True Church founded by Christ Himself. But there’s a lot we can learn from our Pentecostal and Evangelical brethren, who sometimes do so much more with so much less: fewer sacraments, no Sacred, Apostolic Tradition, no Real Presence. Thanks to my brother and his wife, here’s my list of things Catholics can learn from Pentecostals:
Scripture as our own language. Protestants revere the Bible, and Catholics often feel at a disadvantage when talking to enthusiastic Protestants who sprinkle their conversation with Biblical references. It’s high time Catholics realized that the New Testament was written by Catholic bishops for the faithful of the early Catholic Church, and stop being intimidated by scripture-quoting Protestants. We need to read the Word of God, reverence it, and incorporate it into our very being, for by doing so we reverence Christ who is the Incarnation of the Word. After all, doesn’t the very form of the Mass teach us that we are to receive the Word in Scripture and in the Eucharist and take Christ into a needy world?
Catholics are farther along this road than most of us realize. We might not know chapter and verse, but just by attending Mass, we incorporate a great deal of scripture into our collective memory and thought. If we are going to be active emissaries of Christ in the world (and that’s the job description of a Catholic), we need to take the additional step and learn to converse fluently in “Bible” about our faith and about our call. And yes, I’ve heard from cradle Catholics that their priest used to discourage them from reading the Bible. To that I answer: Did you ever read your missal back then? It was full of scripture. And besides, that was then. This is now. Go get a good Catholic study Bible, grab a Catechism and a good book on Lectio Divina, and start reading, unless you want to be explaining to God why you never found time to read and explore His word in your three-score and ten on earth.
Singing. Full disclosure here. I can’t sing. My own father once told me I couldn’t carry a tune in a bushel basket and my daughter used to cover her ears at lullaby time and shriek, ”Don’t sing!” Even so, I realize completely the truth of the old adage that he who sings, prays twice. Song carries our prayers--joyful or sorrowful, contemplative or intercessory, to a new dimension. Catholics have the richest heritage of religious music in the world, and we often ignore it or water it down with modern substitutes that are too often banal, insipid, egocentric and just plain unsingable. While there are some stellar examples of great Catholic choirs and equally proficient pewsitters, let’s face it: most parish singing is just plain pitiful.
Such need not be the case. At a Civil War re-enactment I once attended, the celebrant turned to the assembled faithful and asked for a rousing chorus of Holy God, We Praise Thy Name. He got it: 350 assembled voices rang out in enthusiasm and without benefit of choir or organ. If it can be done with what amounts to the anthem of the English speaking Catholic world, it can be done with other music as well, if we take time to cultivate the skill. As far as I can tell, neither the Catechism, the GIRM or the Code of Canon law prohibits a parish from having an old fashioned hymn sign and dinner on the grounds to help the faithful learn to worship as fully with their voices as they do with their hands, their knees, their eyes and their hearts and minds.
Enthusiastic Love of the Holy Spirit. Pentecostals are absolutely determined in their pursuit of the Holy Spirit. He is as real to them as Jesus is. The reality is the Holy Spirit should not be a neglected part of Catholic worship. We have our own personal Pentecost when the Spirit is confirmed in us, and there is a wealth of tradition that can lead us to an intimate relationship with all three persons of the Trinity. Which brings me to the need for Catholics to learn to...
Speak in tongues. I’m not talking about glossolalia here (though the charismatic renewal proved that that particular gift is still alive and well in our precincts). One other result of the events of Pentecost, after all, is that the Church herself was given the gift of tongues--of communicating with all manner of people in all places and at all times. Such is the great gift to the Catholic faithful: no matter where we go, no matter the language, we know what’s happening in Mass and we can participate fully (especially armed with our electronic missals that can give us the readings in English).
We need to use that gift. Catholics need not be afraid of worshipping in another language, be it Latin or Spanish or Hindi. Seeking out the opportunity to worship with people whose language and culture are different from our own gives us an opportunity to experience prayer in a different dimension--one that does not rely on our words or our thoughts, but releases us to the stirrings of the Spirit within us. Sometimes when we are not distracted by the superficial meaning of what we are saying and hearing, a deeper level of communication opens up. We realize that in speaking to God, we speak not only to One familiar, but one so completely Other that we cannot completely comprehend--but we find HIm accessible to us for the asking. And sometimes--sometimes--we hear without words, too, at the very center of our being, the tiniest glimmer of Heaven.
Evangelization. Protestants, especially Evangelicals and Pentecostals, openly share their faith. In the South, that is particularly true. “Do you have a church home?” is generally the third question asked of a stranger (right after Where are you from? and Who are your people? Invitations to come to church are extended the unchurched or the disaffected as a matter of course. Conversations about the details of faith (sometimes at high volume and great intensity) are almost a form of communal recreation. Requests for and offers of prayer are commonplace. We Catholics have the greatest treasure of faith known to humankind. Why are we often so reluctant to share it?
Too often Catholics take the admonition to “preach and if necessary use words,” to mean that words are never necessary. Words are necessary and faith by its nature is never private; it is meant to be given away. If we’re capable of telling our friends about the great new laundry detergent, dress boutique, golf club, car or wine we’ve encountered. we ought to be able to tell people what our Catholic faith means to us. My husband is a member of an ecumenical, largely Presbyterian, Bible study. He shares how his Catholic faith shapes his understanding of scripture and the religious life whenever the opportunity presents itself.
I’m a little more brash and direct: recently, when I found a couple of magazines with libelous and offensive articles about Catholicism in the waiting area of the beauty shop I frequent, I pointed them out to the owner. I told her as gently as I could that I was, in fact, offended and that the accusations they made were untrue. She looked at them and apologized, and tore the magazines up. We both learned something.
Catholic Evangelist Steve Ray's wife once commented that, as upset as she was with Protestants for misrepresenting Catholicism, she was more upset with Catholics for never telling her the truth about their faith. I agree. I spent a long time one step removed from the Church because I believed I was already there as an Anglo-Catholic. Shame on me, perhaps, for not seeking further, but oh! how I wish my Catholic friends had told me what I was missing!
There are plenty of excuses for not doing so, chief among them that it will do no good. The Parable of the Sower tells us that it's our job to scatter seeds. Some of it will fall on rocky ground, to be sure, but some of it won't. It takes all kinds to share the faith, but share it we must, if the Holy Spirit is to make it grow.
Intercession. My sister in law was talking about the practice of altar calls at her church. She was amazed that almost every time, someone responded to the invitation to accept Christ--until she realized that during the service a team of intercessors were praying fervently for the Holy Spirit to move someone to faith. We Catholics incorporate intercession into the very heart of the mass--but how many of us join together, intentionally, purposefully and outside of church to pray fervently for anything at all--let alone for the conversion of souls, or an increase in vocations, or (fill in the blank)? How many of us believe--really believe--that it will make a concrete difference in the world, just because we have prayed? Private prayer is a wonderful thing, but as Catholics, we understand that our lives are linked to each other in the Body of Christ. We need to take advantage of that for ourselves and for others. Joyously. Often. Even publicly!
Love of good preaching. I remember one of my Evangelical friends commenting on her first experience of Mass: “Y’all sure do go to a lot of trouble for such a little bit of preaching.” In part because the sacramental life is so limited in Protestant churches, preaching takes center stage--it’s why the pulpit, and not an altar, is in the middle of the church. There’s no need for Catholics to go overboard and mimic the Protestant model; the Eucharist is and should remain the source and summit of our faith. And not every pastor has the gift of homiletics (though I rarely hear a homily that doesn’t feed my soul). But there are excellent Catholic preachers and teachers, and their talks are available on DVD, CD, Youtube, podcasts, Catholic TV and radio and through the Internet. We’re willing to pay top dollar for iPods and music, for cable and movies and concerts. Why are we so stingy when it comes to spending a few bucks or making a little effort to receive something that profoundly enriches our faith? A modest proposal: instead of listening to talk radio or your favorite album on the way to and from work, why not invest in a few inspirational CDs. And share them around in your....
Small Group Fellowship. As Protestant churches got larger, many of them started home fellowships where groups of believers could gather regularly to share their lives, their thoughts and their support. The time when Catholics lived in homogeneous neighborhoods and daily life was governed by the rhythms of the Church and lived out in the intimacy of neighborliness is long past. These days, many folks don’t even know the residents to either side of their own home and for too many of us, Church is a once a week, for an hour only, experience. Ours is a corporate, daily, permeating faith. What we have lost because of changing patterns in a secular world, we need to replace thoughtfully and purposefully. Belonging to a group takes effort, but so does living in Christ. Belonging to a group to discuss the trials and joys of faith, especially when the group both provides support and accountability makes being Catholic more real, more vibrant, and more life-changing. And that, after all, is the point.
The Importance of Church Life. Protestant churches are a hotbed of classes and activities. There are Sunday School classes for every conceivable group, midweek services, and it is expected that members will take part in something more than just Sunday services. Revivals and guest speakers are a near-constant feature, and well attended. Scheduling a well-known Pentecostal preacher for a talk almost guarantees that people will travel from far and wide to hear him.
Unfortunately, far too many Catholic parents neither set the example of lifetime learning for their children nor demand it of them after confirmation classes are over and done with. Nor do many set participation in religious life as a priority, either for themselves of their children (note well the large percentage of self-identified Catholics who fail to attend Mass once a week). For too many of us Catholics, Church comes after--not before or instead of--other, competing interests. I remember, soon after coming into the Church, being horrified at the report of a parent whose child missed meeting with the Bishop before Confirmation because of a conflicting rehearsal for a piano recital, and the shrug of the shoulders that accompanied it. It's just how people are, I was told. They're busy. We have to adapt..
The result of that sort of indifference to the active life of the Church community? Too many adults don’t know and value their own faith (because they too, stopped learning in 8th grade, and fail to give it precedence in their lives) and too many of them and their kids, (left adrift at an especially vulnerable and rebellious time in their lives) start exploring the local Protestant church for social reasons and because they are asked. For many of them, it isn’t long before their faith is undermined by the teaching they encounter, and too many of them leave the Church never to return. Our faith is precious, the pearl of great price, but we need constant experience, reminders, encouragement and edification in what the Church teaches and what the sacramental life yields. Catholics need to take seriously the fact that a faith that is not practiced dies. Faith that does not reach and grow, seeking constant inspiration and education just isn’t up to the challenges of life as we mature. In faith, as in all else, practice makes perfect.
So, as my Pentecostal brother might say: Come, Holy Spirit! Fill us, move us, guide us, direct us, and set us on fire for our faith. Equip us for every good work and send us out to show the world what living as a Catholic is all about!