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Catholic Confessions of A Reformed Worship Director

I have a confession. I’m a Reformed Protestant worship director who attends Mass at a Catholic parish on a regular basis. Others in my position will understand that Sunday is a “working day,” and not always conducive to the kind of Sabbath rest and worship necessary for healthy discipleship. Saturday night Mass is something I look forward to for perspective, prayer, and nourishment. In fact, it is the only Saturday night service in our town that I am drawn to attend on a regular basis. Why? Because all the others tend to leave me frazzled or anxious. They are generally too loud, too full of words, too liberal, or to cerebral. I need a place I can rest. I need a worship service rooted in hundreds of years of practice (ritual even) and tied to the larger narrative of the world’s true story, one that transcends the zeitgeist (prevailing attitudes or feelings of society). One where I can do more resting in the work of Christ than reacting to the winds and whims that engulf me the rest of the week.

The parish that I have been attending is also the largest and most diverse church in our town. It is also the least flashy and personality driven. Sometimes I struggle to make out what the priest is saying during his homily because of his thick Asian accent, but God still speaks. Sometimes the musicians are off-key and infants are crying, but no one seems to mind. Every week I watch parents from a variety of ethnic and economic backgrounds teach their children when to kneel for prayer and when to bow as we recite the Nicene Creed.

The Work of the People

It occurs to me that much of my attraction to this service is because of my own Reformed and ecumenical sensibilities. Unlike other churches I have visited in my area, the liturgy reflects practices that reaffirm worship as “the work of the people.” Last week I counted over 20 people involved in leading worship: Scripture readers, acolytes, cantors, eucharistic ministers, deacons, and prayer leaders. The music is led well and the musicians are adequate, but not professional. There is no sense that the parishioners are expecting a show or a flawlessly performed Bach Cantata. The musicians, who sit off to the side, are men and women from 8 years old to 75 years old. It’s rare to see this kind of all-inclusive worship team modeled at the Reformed and evangelical churches I have attended.

We always sing and listen to the Psalm of the week, as well as the Scripture texts appointed by the lectionary. It is no small encouragement that those same Scriptures will be read and consumed by millions of other Christians around the world in scandalously different contexts and geographical places. The chances are, I will hear these same lectionary readings the next day at my own church, a Christian Reformed Church committed to reading Scriptures in solidarity with the majority of the world’s Christians. In faith, we trust that these passages from God’s Word will meet us in our local context as well. Our two churches also share many of the same liturgical refrains, from, “The Lord be with you,” to “Lift up your hearts,” and the Lord’s Prayer. This consonance warms my heart and helps me breathe. 

Surprisingly enough, Protestant hymns are often sung at this parish. Most church music directors know that great sacred music is delightfully indiscriminate—crossing traditions while embodying the deepest truths. Singing common hymns in the context of a Roman Mass reaffirms my own calling as a church musician and reminds us that music holds us together in spite of our inability to reconcile in other ways. This fact should not be understated. Singing “A Mighty Fortress” or “Come Thou Fount” at the local Catholic parish is enough to make me think that maybe Vatican II can be spoken of as a kind of Protestant liturgical renewal within the larger Western church. The best Protestant hymns engage the entirety of Scripture and present it as a “coherent dramatic narrative” that connects community and individuals to the whole. The form of the Mass does the same thing. Does the inclusion of these hymns presuppose that, on some level, we belong to the same Church? Thanks be to God.

As the homily begins, I don’t get the sense that the priest feels like he needs to say everything. There are no 45-minute sermons preached here, and I must admit that I often internally criticize the priest for his lack of polish, but the eloquence of the sermon is not the focus of this service. I don’t get the sense that people come back because the music and preaching are always exciting. They come out of compulsion because it is in their bones to come. They come because their kids are involved in the parish-run school that has been good to their family. They come because they were baptized here. They come because it is necessary. They come to receive Christ, not the word of man. It’s easy to tell that there are a lot of broken people here. I don’t see folks acting “super spiritual.” You know what I mean. Instead, many seem to possess the kind of ingrained reverence that smells like genuine humility.  

By this point, you may be wondering if I go forward to receive the Eucharist when it is offered? I do not. I have too much respect for our respective traditions and the things that separate us. I confess that the pull is strong. So strong, that the weight of separation often feels painful. I do, however, join that line of saints to go forward for a blessing and am often brought to tears as the congregation speaks the words, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I meditate on these words as I cross my arms in front of the priest and am blessed in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: that glorious mystery that we both confess with our lives to save us. In so confessing, we both agree that it is through grace alone that we are healed.

The entirety of the Roman Catholic experience in America is complicated, and I am sure I have grossly misrepresented it here. All that to say, the Vatican II inspired Roman Catholic Church is alive and well in the United States. I have attended quite a few Catholic parishes over the last 10-15 years and I sometimes find them to be even more “Reformed” in their emphases than some Reformed churches. For example, the sermon last Sunday at the local parish was about how God’s grace proceeds our ability to obey Christ and the standards he gave us in the Sermon on the Mount. Obedience is a simply a response of gratitude.

So, am I actively seeking to become Roman Catholic? Nope. I will keep praying and working with a Reformed accent for worship and practices that reflect a “work of the people” that is participatory, diverse, creedal, and equally soaked in Word and Sacrament. Not just the preaching of the Word by one individual, but the rehearsing and embodying of the actual words of Holy Scripture within the community of local saints.

Becoming More “catholic”

It’s easy to overemphasize the nuances of Reformed dogma and evangelical experiences while forgetting to attend to the Great Tradition and the worship practices that have proved sustainable for Christians throughout the ages. To rediscover these threads we may have to go back to church and sit awhile. We may need to attend a celebration of the Mass at a local Catholic parish or take in the sublime beauty of The Divine Liturgy at an Orthodox church in the next town over.

I sense that we, as a community of folks committed to a Reformed articulation, are becoming more aware of our lopsided worship tendencies and more willing to engage with the deepest roots of Christian faith and practice. When it comes to those around the world who confess Jesus as Lord, it is easy to forget that we in the Reformed tradition are in the minority.

Can we resist distractions and make the worship at our churches as simple, rooted, and participatory as the Roman Catholic parish I attend on Saturday night? I want my four small children to be formed by this kind of culture and worship more than the consumer-driven options that seem so readily available within our own Reformed and evangelical worlds.

On this 500th anniversary of the Protestant reformations, perhaps it would be wise to reflect on how we might become more catholic? Let’s suppress our reforming impulses for a while and consider common practices and forms of worship that precede the reformations by 1500 years. We will find that rehearsing our story through the words of Scripture, the Nicene Creed, and the regular practice of Baptism and the Lord's Table are ground zero when it comes to Christian worship and discipleship. If our forms and practices of worship do not reflect and emphasize these things, our innovations will not be sustainable for future generations. Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre says that ". . . an adequate sense of tradition manifests itself in a grasp of those future possibilities which the past has made available to the present." It is only when we have taken the deepest of our collective traditions to heart that we will be able to faithfully shape future worship with a Reformed accent. This becomes clear to me the more time I spend immersed in Christian worship traditions that are different than my own and have survived more than five centuries. The riches of two millennia of Christian worship practices and their congruence with our Reformed cadence are right in front of us.