On Saturdays, the lobby to the Knights of Columbus hall in nearby Medford is used for drivers’ education testing. A father named Bill had brought his daughter for an 8:00 am testing, and attracted by the lights had walked into the Knights’ Club Room.
He introduced himself and we struck up a conversation. He was not particularly curious about the room itself, whose dark-paneled walls were covered with trophies, photographs of sports teams, service awards, pictures of popes and former pastors testifying to a still-active Council that began in 1911. What for me was a shrine to a century of practical Catholicism, to him had little meaning.
“I am a Christian,” Bill told me and I nodded in affirmation. Then he earnestly added: “Saved by the blood of the lamb.” I replied that I fully agreed, and at at Mass, Catholics pray to the “Lamb of God who takes away sins of the world.” I did not tell him that we do not speak this way — that our vocabulary is different.
I have always respected evangelical Christians for their intense and outspoken belief. But I often felt that theirs was a somewhat stripped-down form of Christianity. Evangelicals, on the other hand, perceive Catholicism as cluttered with structures and rituals. If the evangelical Christians seem to have too little of the whole Gospel, we Catholics seem to have too much.
That morning both of us struggled to stay on the same page.
When in his early twenties, he explained, he had accepted Christ once and for all as Lord, and that his life had never been the same since. “Had I had a conversion experience?” he wondered.
Where does one begin? How do you explain the impact of the sacraments, the rhythms of the liturgical seasons, and the role in our prayer life of Scripture, Mary, and the saints. Catholics live these things. We seldom talk about them.
I did, however, have a kind of conversion experience to share. I told him that the celebration and reception of the Eucharist each week was an encounter in the most personal way with my savior. I told him how affirming it was to approach the altar with parishioners of many cultures, ages, and traditions. For me this was the heart of Catholicism.
But we were coming from two different worlds.
I described the diversity within our parish community of rosary guilds, charismatic prayer groups, Bible study groups, and of our Christmas outreach to the forgotten. I described how the music at every Mass is of a different style. The variety of faith expression he found bewildering. It clashed with his image of a Catholicism as a community rigidified by doctrine and discipline.
I described my experience while studying in Rome just after Vatican Council II. I was surprised at how differently various cultures approached Catholicism. In the end I concluded that Catholicism is like a home with many children, Each had different traits but all are of the same family.
There were things that Bill and I shared in common. We spoke of prayer and charity to the poor and suffering. I described the role of the Knights of Columbus in promoting respect for human life. We spoke of the Christian witness of Pope Francis.
But there were also differences. In his view, institutionalism stifles the Spirit. The tremendous good done by the Knights, I explained, would never happen if we were not an organization. But he persisted, convinced that a vast organization of laws and hierarchies could not be spirit-filled.
We agreed to disagree.
Had I been wiser and more spiritually attuned to the moment, I might have suggested that we should stop talking. I might have asked that both of us just close our eyes and be in his presence together for a single minute. Then we could have said together the Lord’s Prayer as a sign the walls that divide us surely do not extend all the way to heaven.
But life intervened. Bill’s teen-age daughter came into the club room to sadly report that she had failed her driving test, and he did his best to console her. I said goodbye and watched them leave.
If only we had prayed together.
Larry Mullaly, February 2017