Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 89 (January 1999): 9-12.
In its section on music, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Augustine: "How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face—tears that did me good." As a former Lutheran pastor who is now Roman Catholic, I am sorry to say Augustine’s wonderful words do not describe my experience with worship in the Church. Though at times I have been on the verge of tears, that was due to feelings of despair and not devotion. Far from drawing me into the Church, the manner in which the Mass is celebrated in most parishes constituted, in the end, the greatest stumbling block to my conversion.
My trek to Rome began in earnest the day I read in Lutheran Forum Pastor Leonard Klein’s condemnation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s practice of funding abortions: "Real churches do not kill babies." Prior to this point, I had never seriously considered becoming Roman Catholic. After all, I was a fourth-generation Lutheran pastor—happy to be a pastor and steeped in the traditions, theology, and ethos of Lutheranism.
Yet, as I read Klein’s editorial, I was like a person coming to terms with the terminal illness of a loved one: I saw that my church body had fallen captive to "the culture of death" and that I had no choice but to leave. I had for some time ceased to view Lutheranism as a necessary "corrective" to Catholicism and, for years, had viewed the Roman Catholic Magisterium, and especially this Pope, as the keeper of the faith for all of Christendom. Therefore, for me, the only true option was to become Roman Catholic.
I began to read—papal encyclicals, Vatican II documents, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, theologians such as Louis Bouyer, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. I conversed with other Protestant pastors who had become Catholic and with priests who had grown up in the faith—all were eager evangelizers. The more I read and talked, the more convinced I became of the truth of the Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrine.
I had now arrived at the doorstep of Lumen Gentium 14: "Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by God through Jesus Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in her could not be saved." Even if I was willing to take a chance with my own soul, I had three small children to consider and that concentrates the mind. At this stage, I was a reluctant convert still wrestling with giving up my ordination, but I took comfort in C. S. Lewis’ insight: "The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation." God’s compulsion was operating through my conscience and driving me into the arms of the Church. I now set out with hopes of experiencing the teachings and beliefs of the Church through Catholic worship—the Truth made manifest, if you will.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the lobby of our local Catholic parish, St. Mary’s, was the absence of a coat rack. Catholics, unlike Lutherans, worship with their coats on, which gives the impression they are making an obligatory pit stop. After Mass, most do not linger to talk but instead race to be the first out of the parking lot. Obviously, becoming Catholic was going to require a few adjustments, including giving up that Protestant feeling of belonging to a close–knit community.
The sanctuary of St. Mary’s is devoid of statues, and the pews are arranged in a semi–circle. We chose to sit in the side pews, and I soon discovered the problem with this configuration: I spent most of Mass staring at the parishioners across from me—observing their dress, their mannerisms, their parenting skills. This became an especially great temptation during the homily, which lasted twenty minutes and was delivered without manuscript or notes. My father, who for part of his career taught homiletics, warned me: "If you are going to preach without a manuscript, you actually have to be much better prepared." Many priests don’t seem to know that rule.
I might have put up with the preaching, but the music was another matter altogether. This parish had well over a thousand members, so I could not understand why it did not have a choir. Instead, we were led in song by a large, well–dressed, perfectly coifed woman who stood at the lectern and sang with great emotion off–key into a microphone. The alternative to the song leader was the intensely earnest folk group with their three guitar chords. My first call as a pastor had been to a small rural parish with an average attendance of ninety and a choir of five. It boggled my mind to think the music and singing in that parish was superior to what I was now experiencing.
One Sunday, after singing the words to "Here I Am Lord" (I, the Lord of sea and sky. . . . My hand shall save. . . .), I turned to my husband and said, "Why are we always pretending to be God in these contemporary Catholic hymns? It strikes me as a bit presumptuous." I then began to notice the inordinate number of references to "I," "me," and "my" in the hymns I was being asked to sing. (As I later read in Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing, the music "oozes with an indecent narcissism.") Before long, I was standing arms crossed refusing to sing at all.
One day, while I was driving with my five–year–old son, a piece by Bach came over the car radio. "Mommy," my son said, "This is Mr. Bach. We listen to his music in church. I mean we used to listen to him in our old [Lutheran] church. Mommy, can we go back to Mr. Bach’s church?" I know Bach is not the be-all and end-all of the worship experience; nevertheless, my husband and I decided we could not attend a parish that undermined our attempts to instill in our children a love of the great liturgical and musical traditions of the Church.
Next stop, St. Catherine’s. Here, I experienced the mega–church, Catholic style. St. Catherine’s has an excellent organist and a large choir, but they sing the exact same music as St. Mary’s, only it is more annoying because the better the performance, the more schmaltzy the music sounds. The monsignor at St. Catherine’s is a genuinely nice guy, and his liturgies reflect that fact. The sanctuary, which is really a big brightly lit auditorium, is perfectly designed to draw attention to him at all times. We did not last long at St. Catherine’s. After visiting several other parishes, I began to despair of ever finding a satisfactory place of worship.
By now the darkness in my soul was hardening into cynicism as I contemplated the irony and just plain absurdity of my situation: who would have thought my problem with Roman Catholicism would be its seeming lack of reverence for tradition? I now wondered if the people leading and participating in Catholic worship actually believed what the Church taught. The informality and anthropocentricity of religious folk music help create an atmosphere in which the questioning of tradition and authority seems only natural. In the context of the modern Mass led by Father "I am just like you," the all–male priesthood and even the liturgy of the Eucharist itself can seem strangely out of place. Since much of Catholic worship has ceased to reflect the mystery, splendor, and otherworldliness of the Church, it is hardly surprising that Catholics begin to wonder why the Church cannot reflect more of the surrounding culture.
Most of the problems with worship, both Catholic and Protestant, stem from attempts to adapt worship to a therapeutic culture in which the individual reigns supreme. Pastors cater to the perceived needs and feelings of their parishioners. I know; I did it as a pastor when I gave warm–up monologues to put myself and the congregation at ease and when I made cute little remarks, especially during that new center of mainline Protestant worship, the children’s sermon. I have a friend who happily described the way in which her priest combined her daughter’s first communion with a pizza party in order to make the whole process "no big deal" and something "she could feel good about."
Most of the pastors I know are not on ego trips, but they are under great pressure to make worship relevant and meaningful for people such as my friend. That is not all bad: liturgy must connect with the lives of worshipers, as the Second Vatican Council rightly acknowledged. However, the accommodation of Christian beliefs and practices to a culture fundamentally opposed to Christianity has gone too far. As Cardinal Ratzinger says in Salt of the Earth, "An awareness needs to develop that in fact to a large extent we [Christians] no longer know Christianity at all."
By now, the over–accommodation of Catholic worship to modern culture—the hi jacking of the good intentions of Vatican II by liberal liturgists—has been well–documented. This recognition, and the efforts of societies dedicated to liturgical renewal such as Adoremus and the Society for Catholic Liturgy offer hope that "reform of the reform" is on the way. In the meantime, I still faced the problem of finding a way to live with the present reality of worship within the Church.
The answer finally came after I resolved to speak to a visiting priest at the church where I attend daily Mass. I told him I was a Lutheran pastor who wanted to become Roman Catholic but couldn’t find a place to worship. Did he know of a traditional parish without guitar music? He looked at me as if I resided on another planet. "Can I ask you something?" he asked. "Why do you want to become Catholic?" He asked the question in a tone that suggested, Why would you want to do a thing like that? I mumbled something about the problems in the ELCA and my belief that the Catholic Church is the fullest, most rightly ordered manifestation of the Church on earth. "Oh," he replied. "In that case you want to go to Holy Rosary. It’s an Italian parish with a beautiful sanctuary and traditional music and liturgy."
I have attended Holy Rosary ever since. There are no guitars or missalettes. The organist and choir are first rate; the organist even plays Bach and the choir often sings in Latin. More importantly, the parishioners have an attitude of quiet piety and profound reverence for the liturgy that is quite moving. They observe the muscular prayers of kneeling, genuflecting, and crossing themselves. The monsignor never begins Mass with "good morning," offers no explanations, does the Canon with great dignity and reverence. Unlike other parishes I have attended, Holy Rosary offers a seemingly endless variety of distinctively Catholic devotions—prayer hours, rosaries, novenas, Fatima devotions, Divine Mercy Masses, and nocturnal adorations. I feel I have entered a world with endless layers of meaning with the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist at its center. Here at last the Truth has become manifest. Maybe I am not part of a Protestant–type church family, but I am part of something far bigger and more important—the community that traces its history back to the apostles and their living testimony of the Risen Christ. On Corpus Christi Sunday, I was received into full communion with that cloud of witnesses.
Holy Rosary’s sexton, who left his neighboring parish when the guitars were moved to the front of the sanctuary, tells me some people travel up to an hour to attend a traditional Mass at Holy Rosary. Though I admire their devotion, I still must ask—should it really be that hard?
Jennifer Mehl Ferrara is a writer and mother living in Fleetwood, Pa.