Bad Religion

Being May 4th, aka Star Wars Day, I had a number of Catholic or Episcopal nerd friends on Facebook making the same comment I always think to myself: When someone says, “May the Force be with you,” my instinctive reaction is to respond, “And also with you.” Years of Catholic Mass have made these responses second nature. Problem is (and don’t tell Grandma), I don’t go to Mass nearly as often as I did in my youth.

And guess what?

Now this isn’t a problem I encounter just on May 4th or at Star Wars-themed events. It has infiltrated the Church. No, Catholics have not embraced Yoda, but around three years ago, they did overhaul the calls and responses for Catholic Mass in order to adhere more accurately to the (I believe) Aramaic version. Instead of the rote and sensical, “And also with you,” we are now expected to reply, “And with your spirit.” 

I’ve been “with your spiriting” for a while and, even if I went to church on a weekly basis, I guarantee you this phrase would still sound equally bizarre to me. Part of this stems from the fact that my mom has instilled in me the same resistance to change she has. Another part of it is that the reason I prefer Catholicism to other religions is that it feels more academic when I attend, not really a clap your hands, hug your neighbors kind of affair. There are three pre-determined readings, a discussion of how those readings tie together, some fraternal handshaking, a transubstantiated little snack, and we call it an afternoon.

If Mom had her way, Mass would still be said in Latin. I don’t go that far, but I do agree with her that this Catholic bent on making Mass more communal and lovey dovey is simply not my thing. About 15 years ago, there was a trend in churches to hold hands during the reading of the Our Father prayer, lifting them up in rejoicing at the prayer’s conclusion. My mother and I perfected the art of keeping our hands clasped in front of us and our heads firmly bowed down. We were here to learn about Jesus, not touch strangers. Yeah, Catholic means community and all, but that is what the sign of peace is for–a time where you can stealthily and selectively choose whose hands you’re shaking and abruptly turn your back to avoid those who looked like they might still be recovering from the flu.

The Church continues to make these small changes and I am beginning to think it is not this Aramaic nonsense that is causing it. I think the Catholic church is leveraging something it is very good at leveraging–Catholic guilt. When you haven’t been to Mass in a while and belt out the wrong response, you feel like crap. You’ve tipped your hand that you’re a bad Catholic, more than likely embarrassing your family because you are likely at mass for a family occasion like a holiday, wedding, or funeral. They want to remind you how not on the ball you are not going to church every week, forgetting that you can still live the Catholic life without necessarily making it to church on the regular. As Admiral Ackbar would say–”It’s a trap!”

We buried my grandpa, a devout Catholic, this weekend and I heard many cousins besides myself sputter through the different responses as the funeral mass went on. I recalled how this particular church has a penchant for singing every verse of every song, even if there are seven verses, as I tried to sing through the tunes aside from funeral standards “On Eagles Wings” and “How Great Thou Art”, using my childhood piano skills to sight read the music, getting it down along about verse five. My family refers to it as “playing Catholic”, and we even go so far as to compliment clear non-believers or lapsed Catholics on their ability to fake it in front of their elders that they seemingly still go to Mass, bare minimum once a week. I’m pretty good at this game myself. I have the hand gestures down, I know the process of Mass well enough to know what is coming, and I have just taken to singing the songs a little louder to make up for the increased mumbling in my responses. Sometimes though, I still catch myself doing the wrong thing.

The most horrifying moment for me came when I was asked to read the first reading at the funeral. I think our relatives wanted a representative of each child’s family to participate. They also needed three people who are not shy in front of crowds, so I was volunteered to represent the Welmans, which was fine by me. My sister texted me a picture of my reading, which I read over a few times on the way down.

I was up first and stared out at the crowd of 200 or so that gathered in this town of 200 or so to celebrate the life of a man no one hated, nor even disliked. I was so proud to be a part of the tribute to his life. I took a deep breath, looked down, and saw the first line differed from my practice version. Damned translations! I couldn’t tell if this was the correct reading or a different passage from the Book of Job. I panicked for five seconds, wondering if I needed to verify with the priest this was right or just go with the flow, hoping this was thematically in the same ballpark as what I was supposed to say. After about two lines, I realized it was just a different translation of the same reading.

I did my best to fake being a good Catholic this weekend, but I did a bad job at it. Because I may believe the general gist of what the faith has to offer, but these tiny changes keep tripping me up, reminding me that the force isn’t necessarily with me the way it was with Grandpa. But I did show up and try, and honestly, only a couple of people noticed my moment of panic, while most wrote it off to grief.

Once again, the smallest change in wording tripped me up at Mass. I am one who gets mired in the smallest details of every word, so it shouldn’t surprise me that these changes just won’t ever take. The good news for Mom, Grandpa, and me is that the ideas still stick, and as this weekend reminded me, even in the saddest of times, a little time in church can still do me a lot of good.

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