I was walking down a lonely road one morning in the early Spring. The frost still clung to the low-lying branches, but the songbirds were out and about, greeting the sun and rejoicing in the new day. The crisp cold air was invigorating, and I quickened my stride, proceeding on my morning journey. As I made my way around a bend in the road, I saw two buildings in the distance, one across the road from another.
The building on the right was a stone structure, covered in moss and ivy. The grounds were overgrown with bushes and weeds, and if it were not for the cross on the roof, I would not have known what the building was. As I drew near, I identified more markings of a church: a bell in the tower, stone crosses in the graveyard, and dusty stained glass windows.
The building on the left was also a church, by the look of it, though much larger and more modern. There was a large parking lot, full of vehicles of all kinds. I was intrigued by both churches, but as no one appeared to be at the older church, I departed the road on the left side and approached the larger building. I walked to the glass doors and, seeing a crowd inside, pushed open the doors and entered the church.
“Welcome, welcome!” said a pleasant, overweight gentleman in a gray suit. He shook my hand and asked, “What brings you here?”
“Just on a walk,” I said. “Not really sure where I am going, to be honest.”
“Well, let me show you around,” he said. “We're always glad to have visitors.”
He led me to two young men who were standing by a rack of tracts, a cup of coffee in each of their hands. They were dressed casually, both in jeans, one with a hooded sweatshirt and the other with a plain black tee shirt.
“We have a visitor,” my guide said, and the two young men welcomed me and introduced themselves. We exchanged names and the usual pleasantries, and then I asked them if they knew anything about the church across the road. At this, their smiles disappeared, and the older man made a rather disgusted face.
“I'm sorry,” I said. “I'm just very interested in history, and the church looks like it has been here for a while.”
“Forgive me,” said the older man. “You see, we all used to attend that church, but we are now on the road to recovery. This is the Church of Recovering Catholics.”
“I see,” I said.
“That church across the road is a bit of a sore subject, I'm afraid. We all left for a variety of reasons, and we are all very glad we did. For myself, it was the Catholic Church's insistence on being the only true Church. Can you imagine? That sense of exclusivity and the drawing of such a clear line is incredible!”
“And they are way too hopeful when it comes to the salvation of non-Christians,” said one of the young men. “If you're not a Christian, you're going to Hell. That's the end of it. I don't know why they can't see that, but then they're not actually Christians, are they?”
“Catholicism is far too difficult to understand,” said another member of the church, a middle-aged woman with glasses. “So much doctrine and so many rules. You need a PhD to understand half of it. Where is the simple message of Jesus Christ?”
“It is an ignorant peasant religion,” said another member of the church, an elderly man with an aristocratic air. “It appeals only to the common people, the brawling, stinking masses.”
“They have no room for Scripture, you know,” another said. “It's all man-made traditions, replacing the word of God.”
“And they were always reading the Bible during mass,” an older woman said. “I swear, they spent more time reading the Bible than the priest spent explaining it during the sermon. The sermon is really the point, isn't it? If they could cut the readings to one, they would have more time for a good, inspiring sermon.”
“The Catholic Church is so strict!” said a young woman. “There are so many rules. Don't do this, don't do that.”
“And they are far too forgiving,” said another. “I have never known such a bunch of sinners in my life! The vast majority should have been cast out of the doors long ago, but they are still there, week after week!”
“They make you confess your sins to a priest!” a young man said. “We should be able to take our sins directly to God and confess to Him privately in prayer. They make confession so difficult!”
“Confession is too easy,” said a middle-aged woman. “These young people would be out fornicating on Friday night, and then they would all be lined up at the confessional on Saturday. Checking the box is all it was; there was no change of heart. When I pray silently to God, I really mean it, not like those kids!”
“The Catholic Church is a patriarchal nightmare!” said a young woman. “An all male hierarchy ruling from on high and oppressing women!”
“And the Church is so feminine,” said a young man. “Everywhere you look, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary. My high school was controlled by a mob of authoritative nuns. I'm glad I escaped from all that and found a church where women know their place!”
“The Catholic Church is so violent!” another member said. “What with the Crusades, and the knights, and the Inquisitions, the Church's hands are stained with blood!”
“They're a bunch of weak-kneed pacifists!” a tall man said. “The old pope even opposed the war in Iraq! When you oppose God's empire, you oppose God! And speaking of which, the Church is disloyal. Our old priest baptized the children of illegal immigrants!”
“It's a bunch of superstitious nonsense,” said another member. “None of it can be proven.”
“And the Catholic Church thinks far too highly of science,” a woman said. “Did you know Catholics are allowed to believe in evolution and an old Earth? After the service today, we're going to burn some science textbooks. Care to join us?”
“And everyone knows the Church hates sex,” another said. “That's why their priests are celibate, you know.”
“And the Church keeps saying, 'be open to life, welcome children, rejoice in your union with your spouse,' as if our decision not to have children was any business of theirs!” another said.
“Because, of course, the Catholic Church does not allow contraception,” said a man wearing gloves and a surgical mask. “I hope you don't mind if we don't shake hands. I'm not much for touching people. My wife and I don't even sleep in the same room.”
“Speaking of wives,” said a middle-aged man. “The Catholic Church insists that my marriage to my first wife is still in effect, despite the fact that I have official government documents confirming that what God joined together was separated with a few signatures on a Monday afternoon last August.”
The members of the Church of Recovering Catholics continued to share their tales of how awful their former church was. Their service was about to begin, but I politely bowed out, saying I still had a journey ahead of me. As I walked out the front door and took a breath of the fresh, clean air, I looked across the road at the old church. The sun was shining on the steeple, and I could hear a hint of organ music.
I crossed the road, and as I drew near the church, I saw that it was not quite as broken down as I had first thought. The walls were strong, and the stained glass windows were intact. It was a solid structure; it had stood beside that road for many years, and it looked as if it would be there for many years to come.
A man was sitting on a bench by the church gate, smoking a pipe. He was an older man in a tweed jacket, and his eyes lit up when he saw me.
“Are you here for the mass?” he asked, rising and shaking my hand.
“I suppose so,” I said.
“You're just in time. Please come in!”
At this, the old man put out his pipe, placed it in his pocket, and we walked through the doors and into the church.
TO BE CONTINUED …