If there’s one thing I could change about the Catholic church, it would be to come up with a way for first-time visitors to feel less excluded. I think this is a big part of what kept me closed off from the church for so long.
The first time I ever went to a Catholic church was with a friend in elementary school. I don’t really remember having a good or bad experience; it was just church to me then. But I returned when dating my husband, whose family is Catholic. I definitely rebelled against it. At the time, my self-esteem was undeveloped and putting myself in a scenario with my husband’s family, on whom I wanted to make a good impression, and where I was unfamiliar, made me honestly feel “stupid” and “left out.” I had no idea what to do when, and even if I had, I’m not sure if I would have had the confidence to do it. So there I sat, not kneeling, not saying anything, not genuflecting – and all the while feeling pretty dumb and embarrassed. Anyone else experienced this? Please share!
Once you sit there … doing nothing … it’s hard to cross the threshold to “decide” to participate. As a naturally shy person, that seems to draw too much attention and spotlight and so I tend to avoid changing decisions. So I stubbornly held to my guns – not participating – whenever I attended with his family. Sorry guys!
The first time I remember feeling truly good in a Catholic setting was when we went through “pre-cana” or premarriage counseling required by the church to be married Catholic. As part of the counseling, couples must attend a retreat and I had a wonderful experience there. My husband said some wonderful things about me in front of others, which boosted my self-esteem, and I remember the peaceful feeling of being away from the noise of the outside world. No TVs, no radios, just us. And for the first time saw the beauty of the mass when we the two of us attended together, just us, in this peaceful setting.
For another SEVENTEEN YEARS after first attending church with my husband, I followed the same pattern of non participation and only attending mass when I had to – a child being baptized, etc. I will share how I came to the church in another post but it wasn’t until after I’d begun to experience a remembrance of the peace of that first retreat calling me back that I went back to mass – for me, not for anyone else. I decided then and there that I was going to give it full participation, for me and for my children to witness, and just see where I ended up.
Well, I am still learning all the right words to say when, how and when to bow and genuflect and the ins and outs required, but you know what? So are a lot of the people who sit next to me in mass. Just a couple weeks ago, in a small morning mass I attended, everyone stood up together at the wrong moment! The priest just smiled and gestured for us all to sit down. Oops!
Now, I love mass – whether I get the words right or wrong. As soon as the priest blesses us in the beginning, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, a peace washes over me and that is all that matters.
If there’s one thing I want you to know as a Catholic newbie or someone considering the Catholic religion, don’t let all the formalities keep you from mass. Follow along as best you can, sing the hymns and kneel if you want, and see where it takes you. It’s not about doing it exactly right; it’s about being there in the right spirit.