I recently returned from a conference in St. Paul, Minnesota where everyone I met was Catholic. Some extremely so. It was great to meet them.
I grew up with the definite impression that Catholics were bad. Maybe not even Christian. This was never taught from the pulpit or in my home as far as I recall, but I picked it up somewhere. I have some serious doctrinal reservations (as they would with me) when it comes to Catholicism, but find much good and Christian within it and its people. I would like to be counted as one of them.
So I'm sitting at lunch with these folks, and when the conversation gets around to me being in seminary I can see their quizzical expressions: How is it possible I could then be married with kids? Their perplexity goes away with two words: "I'm evangelical". I think they are as surprised to meet me at this conference as I am to meet them.
One fellow, who calls himself a "papist", is very forward about what he prefers about Catholicism and what mystifies him about Protestantism. We had a good talk.
Far as I can tell he thinks evangelical denominationalism is an inexplicable break from the unity of the body of Christ. He asks me who the head of our church is, expecting no answer. When I said "Jesus Christ" it seemed to catch him off guard. He went on to talk about our lack of unity though, and I had to admit he had a point. I wish we could have a pope.
The conversation went back and forth and we were both making pretty good points. I saw some things I hadn't seen before, and hopefully so did he. In the end I felt like I had spoken with a brother in Christ, and when we shook hands and parted ways I hoped he felt the same way.
It was funny to me when I was with all these Catholics because I was imagining what some of my evangelical friends would be thinking if they were with me. Some would have been shocked at the liberalism: Free homemade beer and wine flowed all week (but they were charging for bottled water). Some would have been shocked at the conservatism: I haven't heard the word "contraception" so much in all my life. It was an interesting bunch to be with.
They sure know how to do their architecture. Stained glass and brick everywhere you looked. It had all the feel of fine workmanship and beauty and yet somehow avoided the sense of luxurious overspending. The whole place just felt reverent and connected to the past. I like that. I think it a little ridiculous that my papist friend wanted all Mass to be in Latin, but I do like that immediate connection with Tradition that one feels as soon as one participates in anything Catholic.
I was actually intending to go to Mass and I was even hoping to sneak communion. But when they announced that it was open only to "believing Catholics" I knew I couldn't pull it off because my cover had already been blown. I had known already that this was common practice, but to my surprise it actually hurt when they said I couldn't take communion with them. Even though I know there are good reasons for it, it felt like I was on the outside looking in on them and their Jesus. I did not like that feeling at all. So I didn't go. It would have been too painful.
It was great to lunch with these people at the same table. Personally, however, I long for the day when we can eat at the same Table. They are certainly welcome at mine.