When I came downstairs in my friend's house on Sunday morning several weeks ago on a visit to Boston, he looked up and gave me one of those mischievous Irish smiles and said, "It won't do you any good to go to that Protestant church this morning, Dan. You don't have a chance of getting into heaven." My friend Shaun is one of those "recovering Catholics" who does not harbor happy memories of growing up in the church but is liberally tolerant of my churchgoing, so I wondered what had prompted his dire theological prediction--before I'd even had my coffee! In answer, he handed me an article in that morning's Boston Globe called "Only Catholics Need Apply."
Paul Wilkes, the author of many well-regarded books on Roman Catholicism, explained in The Globe that the recent document issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (and approved by the pope) "unabashedly" proclaims that "the church of Christ...continues to exist only in the Catholic Church." Wilkes writes that the document "not only assigns other believers--including Protestant Christian ones--second class citizenship, but bars them from the gates of heaven, despite their most sincere intentions and good lives."
This news did not discourage me from going to a Protestant church that morning, nor did it send me rushing to the nearest priest in hopes of gaining the gates of heaven by an instant conversion. It did, however, bring to mind my own mixed experiences as a "plain Christian" (Protestant, of assorted lineage) with Roman Catholicism, which have ranged from profoundly inspirational to deeply disturbing.
After losing my faith as a collegiate atheist, I didn't return to church until middle age, when I joined King's Chapel in Boston, a Christian church within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). (Something of an anomaly in the largely humanist UUA, King's Chapel, with its monthly Communion service, is known to denominational wags as "The St. Peter's of the Unitarians.") We often went on retreats to Glastonbury Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Hingham, Mass., about 45 minutes from Boston. There we were welcomed, made to feel at home, and those of us who wished to join the monks in their services of prayer in the chapel and even to take part in their daily Eucharist felt welcome to do so. Often, some of our more humanist-oriented members, who came with trepidation to such a Roman Catholic institution, left with such warm feelings of gratitude for the hospitality that they voluntarily made a contribution (unsolicited) to the monastery. Many of us Unitarian Christians, myself included, came to look upon Glastonbury as our "spiritual home away from home."
The service of the Eucharist, or Communion, in which the bread and wine are taken, as they were at the Last Supper, is for me, as for many Christians, the most intimate and meaningful of Christian rituals. The late Father Henry Nouwen, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian who was one of the most inspirational speakers, writers, and friends in my own spiritual life, one Christmas gave me a privately printed "meditation" he had written about the Eucharist, describing it as "the most ordinary and the most divine gesture imaginable."
While living in Boston in the '80s, I learned there was a daily Eucharist service at the Paulist Center, and I began to attend. After participating several times, I thought that out of courtesy I should ask one of their priests if it was all right for me as a Protestant to take part. The Paulist Center was known as one of the most liberal of the Roman Catholic institutions in the city--one that was sometimes involved in controversy with the local cardinal because of its liberal positions--so I assumed there was no problem in my taking Communion there.
Over coffee with a Paulist priest who I had met once at a social event, I was told that in fact I was not welcome at their Eucharist: "Communion means 'community,' Dan, and it is not really appropriate to participate here if you are not part of the Roman Catholic community."
I'm sure my expression betrayed the shock I felt, and the priest added, "However, you may feel free to come if it's a 'spiritual emergency.'"
A spiritual emergency!
I thanked him for the explanation, apologized for my presumption, and wandered home in a theological daze, wondering who decided if I was experiencing a "spiritual emergency"? Did it have to go all the way to the Vatican? By the time my request had been considered and decided upon, would the "emergency" have passed?
I am sure that if the judge were Cardinal Ratzinger, who issued the recent proclamation barring me from heaven, I would stand little chance of being OK'd for Communion, no matter how severe my "spiritual emergency." I can only pray that such decisions--including entry into heaven--will be made in the spirit of the abbot of Glastonbury Abbey, who once concluded a homily by admitting that he'd been confused by the conflicting images of God he found in the Old and New Testament passages from the lectionary that day and concluded that "We must take God as he comes to each of us."