Faith Journey | Attending Mass in Italy

When I was 13, I had the privilege of spending five wonderful weeks in Italy, in the delightful little town of Vettica, where my uncle was born and grew up. He had married my mother’s oldest sister and the two of them, with my cousin in tow, returned to his family home every summer. That year they took my older brother and me along with them.

I could write volumes about my time there, because it was such a pivotal experience for me on so many levels, and left a huge impact. Just two examples: I finally learned to swim; and, thanks to my aunt’s fascinating “bedtime stories/lectures”, I developed an interest in linguistics which inspired me to study Latin in junior high and high school, and various language/linguistics classes in college. Mostly, my time there was hugely enjoyable, despite getting rather ill. Even then, I was doted on by my uncle’s sister and extremely well taken care of, so my brief “suffering” seemed not much at all. It was mostly an idyllic time, full of feasting and swimming and fascinating places and wonderful people who treated me like visiting royalty.

But I’m writing about my faith journey…

Before going to Italy, my experience with and understanding of Catholicism was minimal. I knew schoolmates who observed meatless Fridays and vaguely knew it had something to do with their Catholic faith. From somewhere I’d gotten the idea that Catholicism was old and traditional, which made me think it should continue on without change, so I was strangely upset about the Mass no longer being in Latin. At the same time, I really had no idea what the Mass was and had zero interest in the Latin language, so I’m not sure why this mattered so much to me. (What can I say? I was a weird kid.) My father had befriended a Catholic priest during his first pastorate; apparently the two of them were the only ones, in a local group of mostly theologically liberal pastors, who “really believed the Bible”. That gave me a rather positive impression of priests. So did watching Bishop Fulton Sheen on TV a few times. A story I’d read about Italian immigrant families made the very idea of midnight Mass at Christmas seem so wondrous that I wished we observed something similar. I’d come to the conclusion that, for the most part, Catholic Churches appeared — from the outside at least — to be more beautiful and “churchy” than their Protestant counterparts. And that’s about all I knew.

Then I went to Italy.

Catholicism was woven into the very fabric of everyday life, and I was exposed to things that, frankly, bewildered me. I saw statues of Mary everywhere, it seemed, and statues of village patron saints paraded about in processions and celebrations. At one point, I blurted out something to my aunt about idolatry.

“You ignorant little girl,” Tante Lydia responded, somehow making the words sound loving rather than like an insult or rebuke. Then, ever the teacher, she proceeded to set me straight. I wish I could remember what she said, but my takeaway was that there was a vast difference between worshiping and celebrating or honoring, and that I was wrong to judge the hearts of people when I didn’t even understand their words, actions, or the real meaning behind them. The lesson about judging the hearts of others is one that, sadly, I have had to relearn over the years.

Weeks later, back in Germany, I made some comment to my grandfather about wondering why “real Christians” didn’t leave the Catholic Church. My Opa loved me dearly — in fact, for years I was convinced that I was his favorite grandchild — but he didn’t hesitate to rebuke me strongly for my prejudice. He had known many “real Christians” over his lifetime, he told me, and some of the most devout ones were Catholic. He trusted that they were exactly where God wanted them to be.

While in Italy, we attended the village church. This was 1971, and the Mass was in Italian. The priest, a relative of my uncle, helpfully loaned me an older German/Latin missal, cautioning me that the liturgy was not identical but that I would hopefully understand most of what was going on. So my first introduction to the Catholic Mass was reading a German translation of the Traditional Latin Mass during an Italian Mass! Unfortunately my German vocabulary wasn’t quite up to the task. I did come to the conclusion that a lot of it was prayer. In fact, it seemed to be mostly prayer, as far as I could tell.

I secretly found the priest fascinating. In public — as in whenever he was around the church or going out and about on the village street — he wore his cassock and carried himself with an air of sober dignity. During the Mass, I thought his voice was impressive and reverent. And then he would show up for an evening visit or to go out with the fisherman at night, dressed in a quite ordinary way. Yet there was still something about him…

I returned to America thinking that Catholicism in our country was of a very different sort. In many ways, that’s true. It was far less public. In Vettica, the children about to receive communion processed down the village street that was lined by all the rest of us, and I’d never seen anything like that at home. Faith in general, where I lived, seemed a way more subdued if not private thing, best kept within the walls of church and home, with the exceptions (like Billy Graham crusades or the Jesus Movement) being newsworthy. If American towns had patron saints, they were kept hidden away and never mentioned, at least as far as I could tell.

But I had to admit that there was something very special about the church as a center of village life, and about people seeming to take for granted that they could openly express and celebrate their faith anywhere and everywhere. And there was also something special about churches and traditions that went back hundreds upon hundreds of years. America always seemed so new in contrast, and I wasn’t sure that was entirely a good thing.

I often found myself longing for deeper roots, for a sense of belonging to something far greater, grander, and more enduring. Looking back now, I see so much of this as God planting seeds in my life and in my heart, seeds that would take decades to come to full fruition.

Faith Journey | Beauty and Awe

My German grandmother introduced me to beautiful architecture. How I wish I had paid more attention to her attempts to teach me about history and architectural styles, but I did absorb an appreciation for beautiful churches — places that took my breath away and inspired in me a sense of reverence. On one of our visits to Germany, when I was 13 years old, Oma insisted she show us the cathedral in Limburg.

How glad I am that she took us there! I’ll never forget my first glimpse of this magnificent cathedral that dominated the landscape. At the time, they were restoring the exterior, but enough of the work had been completed for me to be stunned by how beautiful it was.

When we entered the building, I was overwhelmed with the sense of sacredness.

We were given an unexpected gift on the day we visited, and I wish we had pictures and recordings of what we experienced. It was a Saturday, and people were readying for Mass the next day. Someone was practicing on the pipe organ while women were decorating an area around the altar with flowers. Over 50 years later, I can still remember how exquisitely and reverently beautiful it all was. I was in awe, and I never wanted to leave.

My grandmother showed and described many more wonderful things over the years, planting deep in me a longing for truth, beauty, and goodness.

We can worship God in many ways and in many places. But not all of those places inspire a sense of awe and reverence, and not all of our attempts at worship are necessarily befitting the One we claim to worship. Sorting that out, for me, has been a lengthy process, involving study, soul-searching, long conversations, and prayer. And, as I have written previously, I’ve learned from experience that I am far more capable of worship when “my soul is fed by beauty in an environment designed for worship rather than vexed by ugly, distracting things scattered across what looks like a concert stage.”

Although I don’t worship in a grand cathedral on Sundays, I do worship in a sacred place that is entirely focused on worship. I am surrounded by truth, beauty, and goodness, and our worship feels timeless to me, with a liturgy that spans the ages and contains the very words that resound and will resound around the Throne of Heaven. Why settle for less?

Faith Journey | The hymnal that changed my life

My father, a Baptist pastor, loved to sing. Some of my fondest childhood memories of church involve singing, and watching the joy in which Daddy led the congregation. In his first pastorate, we used the “Worship and Service Hymnal”, published in 1957. When I think of all the hymnals I’ve used in various churches over the years, it’s still my favorite.

Even though I was highly motivated to learn to read, I struggled mightily. This hymnal became one of my tutors. I learned to recognize three digit numbers and find my way to the correct page. And, as I followed along with the familiar hymns, with words helpfully divided into syllables, reading began to make more and more sense to me.

“And Can It Be” became, years later, one of my favorite hymns.

That hymnal, and our long-ago Baptist church services, also introduced me to liturgical worship, although we never would have described it with those words. We had an “order of service”: every Sunday, we sang the Doxology and the Gloria Patri; we recited the Lord’s Prayer; we read Scripture aloud together, in what we called “responsive readings”, which were located towards the back of the hymnal.

When I was 11 years old, I went forward at a Billy Graham crusade and prayed to receive Jesus Christ as my personal Savior. Our home copy of the “Worship and Service Hymnal” became my first prayer book although, if someone had asked me what a “prayer book” was, I would have had no idea what they were talking about. Some of my sweetest memories of all time are those I spent, when alone at home, using the words of my favorite hymns as prayers. They said so much better what my heart longed to say to the God I was learning to worship in spirit and in truth… and especially what I wanted to say to the Jesus that I was learning to love.

In no way am I exaggerating when I say that this hymnal changed my life. It helped teach me to read. It helped teach me to worship. It put words and music to my prayers. And it not only introduced me to beautiful elements of liturgical worship, but sparked a hunger and longing for more.

The dangers of “concordance theology”

One of the problems of private interpretation of Scripture, along with the idea that the Holy Spirit alone is enough to keep us from error (compounded with the temptation to arrogantly assume that all the other people in the world who come to differing conclusions than us simply aren’t listening to God) is that our methods of interpretation can sometimes become truly odd indeed. This is especially the case if we aren’t learned scholars, knowledgeable in the Biblical languages, educated in the history and culture of the human authors, and well studied in theology and doctrine. The wheel we re-invent in our unwillingness to rely on the wisdom of the ages is all too often prone to be a rickety, even dangerous wheel.

Enter what I’ve dubbed “concordance theology”. This is when someone, attempting to plumb the depth of meaning in a particular verse or passage, seizes on a key word, looks it up in their trusty concordance or Bible app search function and, after hopscotching around the Bible, comes up with some way of stringing a bunch of verses together to arrive at some all too often novel meaning.

Let me demonstrate.

John 10:7 So Jesus said again, “I tell you the solemn truth, I am the door for the sheep.

Hhhhmmm… What does this mean? Jesus couldn’t be saying that He is a literal door! I know — let Scripture interpret Scripture! Let’s see where the concept of “door” first appears in the Bible.

Genesis 4:7 Is it not true that if you do what is right, you will be fine? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door. It desires to dominate you, but you must subdue it.”

Uh oh. That makes it sound like the door is a place where sin crouches. But wait — if that’s true, there needs to be at least one other verse to confirm that.

Proverbs 5:8 Keep yourself far from her,
and do not go near the door of her house,

Oh, wow. Doors are associated in Scripture with sin, and we are warned not to go near them. Is Jesus warning us to stay away from Him? Apparently He is the door for sheep, but doors are not for people trying to avoid sin.

John 10:2 The one who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep.

Now I get it! Shepherds are leaders, and only they are strong enough to actually get near enough to enter the door where sin is crouching. When Jesus said He is the door for sheep, He really meant that only shepherds should get close to Him. Got it.

I admit that it took me very little time to make this all up, and I made it as ridiculous as possible, but I’ve heard examples of “concordance theology” almost as absurd. Unfortunately, the people espousing their interpretations were serious, and were insisting their conclusions were obvious, sometimes to the point of exclaiming, “I can’t understand why no one else has ever seen this before!”


I thank God that He did not abandon me to living as an orphan with a Book, left to muddle my way through it on my own. Thank God for His Church, and for a glorious tradition of Saints far more learned and holy than I can ever hope to be!

Unintended consequences?

Have you ever listened, really listened, to women with Downs Syndrome talk about what it’s like to grow up in a society where the vast majority of babies like them are aborted? Have you ever listened to these women talk about how they deal with societal messages that it would be best for them if they didn’t exist, that their lives are not worth living? I have.

Have you ever listened, really listened, to women who were conceived during rape and/or incest, sometimes when their mothers were really young? Have you listened to them describe what it is like to hear people say that their mothers, by not aborting them, did not make what is the “best choice, 100% of the time”? or what it’s like for them to hear that no one could possibly love a child conceived by rape? I have.

Have you ever listened, really listened, to women who have survived their mothers’ attempts to abort them? I have.

Have you ever listened, really listened, to women who grew up in the foster system describe what it’s like to hear that it would have been better for them not to have been born at all, that no one should have to live their life? I have.

Have you ever listened, really listened, to women who regret their abortions? Have you held women in your arms as they wept over abortions from years, even decades, before? I have.

Have you ever listened, really listened, to pro-life women? Or have you bought into the idea that all pro-life people are men who want to control women’s sexuality? Have you listened, really listened, to women who are falsely accused of not adopting, not fostering, not supporting single mothers, etc.? Have you visited your local crisis pregnancy center and politely asked the women there why they volunteer and what services they provide? I have.

Have you ever listened, really listened, to black pro-life women talk about the ugly racist legacy of Margaret Sanger, founder of Planned Parenthood? Have you listened to why some black women say that abortion is black genocide? I have.

Do you know what it’s like to have a doctor, mistakenly thinking that your medical condition is genetic, suggest your baby be immediately tested in utero because, “of course you won’t want to bring a child like that into the world”. What?! “Of course I don’t want to bring a child like me into the world?” Did you just seriously say that to my face?

Do you know what it’s like to have a miscarriage in our culture, to wake every morning with a grief so intense that it’s like a sledge hammer blow to the heart, and to carry that grief in a culture and society full of laws, politicians, and abortion advocates loudly insisting that it was not a child that I lost, but a product of conception, a clump of cells, a part of my body no more significant than an appendix, perhaps even somewhat of a parasitical creature — but certainly less than human because it had not lived long enough to take a breath. Do you know what it’s like to experience agonizing grief in a society that doesn’t think I lost anything worth grieving? I do. The only people who wept with me, who carried my sorrow with me, who were there for me, were the pro-lifers who supposedly don’t care about women.

My dear, sweet, beautiful daughter has lost babies in the womb. She buried four sons. Sons — not clumps of cells or potential humans. I lost grandsons.

Do you know what it’s like to hear the stories I’ve heard, wipe the tears I’ve wiped, weep with the women I’ve wept with, grieve the losses I grieve — and have to ask myself over and over again: Do abortion advocates realize how much pain they cause with their rhetoric? Do they even care about women? Or do they only care about women who want abortions?

This morning’s Gospel reading at Mass jumped out at me:

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I tell you most solemnly, you will be weeping and wailing while the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn to joy. A woman in childbirth suffers, because her time has come; but when she has given birth to the child she forgets the suffering in her joy that a child has been born into the world. So it is with you: you are sad now, but I shall see you again, and your hearts will be full of joy, and that joy no one shall take from you. When that day comes, you will not ask me any questions.’ (John 16:20-23)

NOTE: I will not be approving any comments advocating or defending abortion. You have the entire rest of the Internet to do that. Not here.