Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 158r - The Christmas Mass the Musée Condé, Chantilly

How do you know where to go to church when you’re traveling?

Though I was not traveling, a week ago I went to Mass at a different parish. It was a little bit of a trek and it was in Spanish. Why I went there is a long story, but in the end, to fulfill my Sunday obligation to attend Mass, it was the only option I had.

I’m sad to say I do not speak Spanish and I therefore did not get anything out of the homily. But I did go home thinking again about the universality of the Catholic Church. Catholic means “universal.” That the Church is catholic, or universal, is one of the four marks of the true Church (one, holy, Catholic, apostolic).

The parish I visited last Sunday is the fourth parish where I have attended Mass outside of my own parish since my conversion around this time last year. I have felt equally at home in every parish I have visited. Aside from sometimes having to ask where the restrooms are (and, on one occasion, misinterpreting the directions and opening the exterior door to the sacristy before Mass), I have never once felt lost or uncomfortable or out of place. Each building and parish is unique, but all are the Church. All teach what the Church teaches. The Mass is the same, the readings are the same. I found the Mass I attended by going to my diocesan website to look up Mass times for other parishes; I can find the same information for parishes all over the world at masstimes.org. Customs differ across countries, but it is all the Mass.

Contrast this with finding another church to visit on Sunday morning when you’re an out-of-town Protestant. People from centrally-managed denominations might not have to give it much thought. But for others, especially non-denominationalists or [insert qualifier] Baptists… really, it’s going to be a gamble, isn’t it? Which church is going to have the right doctrine? Which church is going to teach your kids the right things in Sunday school? Which church most closely resembles your home church? In which church will you feel most at home, most welcome? Do you even bother going if you can’t be sure of the experience you’re going to have? You’ll be at the mercy of the preacher, which really means you’ll be at the mercy of the congregation. The church might purport to be this or that kind of Baptist, but the preacher could regularly spout nonsense for all you know (seeing as how you’re new in town). And only if the congregation has a problem with what the preacher is saying would anything ever change. A certain church which is constantly in the news lately is one rather extreme testament to that fact.

Should you have to actually pick up and move to a new area, changing churches can be fairly traumatic. Some people end up having to go “church shopping” for weeks or even months. Indeed, when I was a Protestant, I once heard someone sagely affirm that “if you’re ever in a church where everyone believes the same as you do, take a good look around, because you’re by yourself.”

Does that speak of one Body? Does that speak of universality?

Finding the “right church” shouldn’t be so difficult. If your church is the “right church,” then you ought to be able to find its exact doctrinal duplicate in all corners of the earth by now—and, unless you live in a country in which Christians are persecuted, you ought to be able to find it without having to search so arduously. Especially if you happen to believe you’re living in the “end times.”

After this I had a vision of a great multitude, which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.
They stood before the throne and before the Lamb,

wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.
Revelation 7:9 NAB

It cannot be true that Jesus meant for us to have to go church shopping. Jesus left us with certainty: the Apostles, who had the responsibility and power of ordaining new bishops over new churches. The bishops were the teachers, and the faithful were not judges who could fire them but students who learned from them. It was a top-down organizational model. There was no church autonomy, theologically. If there were, we would not have the Bible; the Church developed, confirmed, and preserved the Biblical canon as we know it today. If Christ’s Church is actually an invisible collection of all Christians on the planet, rather than a defined and visible Church, could you imagine us all getting together to determine the Biblical canon now? It would never get done. Ever. No one would agree. This is why Jesus left us the Church, and then the Church preserved God’s Word with His perfect help. The Apostles and other early Church bishops took great pains to maintain consistency; read the New Testament and note that they had to combat heresies even in the first generation after Christ. And yet the Church is still here and still teaches the same doctrines. Two thousand years of theological consistency.

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit.
Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
So by their fruits you will know them.
Matthew 7:18-20 NAB

Jesus came to show us THE WAY, not hundreds of ways, not whichever way fits best within your personal comfort zone. There can be only one truth. And if the truth exists, then it has always existed since the time of Jesus, as Jesus said it would:

And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
Matthew 16:18 NAB

Jesus also said to His disciples:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.
Matthew 5:14 NAB

Therefore, if Jesus did not lie, then His Church has always existed and has always been visible. The Holy Spirit has always guided the Church and, in His perfection, has safeguarded the Truth. The Catholic Church you see today is the same Church that existed at the time of the Apostles. Pope Benedict XVI can trace his apostolic lineage all the way back to St. Peter in an unbroken line. No doctrine has ever been reversed. The bishops have handed down Church Tradition along with Scripture through the ages, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

“Whoever listens to you listens to me. Whoever rejects you rejects me. And whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.”
Luke 10:16 NAB

And what you heard from me through many witnesses entrust to faithful people who will have the ability to teach others as well.
2 Timothy 2:2 NAB

Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught, either by an oral statement or by a letter of ours.
2 Thessalonians 2:15 NAB

If you are Christian but you are not Catholic, then you belong to a church which has branched away, and you cannot be certain you are getting the Truth as Jesus intended for you to hear it. A church cannot be the true Church if it is newer than the Catholic Church. It cannot be the true Church if it is the one that did the branching away. But chances are, somewhere pretty close to you, there’s a Catholic parish where you can go to see Jesus and hear His Word just as first-century Christians did—studying God’s Word (which was read aloud), breaking the Bread.

In case anyone reading this is considering attending Mass to see what it’s like but is worried about “sticking out,” I will note that when visiting a new parish I have never to my knowledge stuck out as a newcomer unless I have announced myself as such. And when I have needed help because of unfamiliar surroundings, everyone has always been kind. In my most recent experience, the Mass in Spanish, I did have to ask a deacon which building was actually the church (the parish had a few large school buildings as well and I think I came in the back way); this turned out to be a good thing, because when I saw the deacon again inside, he was very kind and retrieved a bilingual missalette for me. I suppose if I were to visit a very small parish in the country, it’s possible that I might stick out in that most people around me would realize they had never seen me before (not that I would mind), but even in my semi-rural town my own parish is large enough that newcomers can blend in if they so desire. I know this because I was once the fearful newcomer who didn’t know a thing about the Mass. I sat in the back, off to the side, where I could watch others’ gestures and postures and step out of the way during Holy Communion. I worried so much about doing something wrong or offending people around me. But my worries were unnecessary and unfounded. You do what everyone else does, or you don’t. No one is going to kick you out for not kneeling or not making the Sign of the Cross or not saying the Creed (which you can find in the missalette if you want to read along while everyone is reciting it). You will probably notice others just sitting back and watching or not going forward during Holy Communion. And while I see many of the same people every Sunday, I still see people I’ve never met before, but I don’t give it a second thought. They might usually sit somewhere else or go to a different Mass (we have four Sunday Masses) or they might be from a nearby parish, or they might not be Catholic at all.

Odds are no one is going to be busy figuring out why they’ve never seen you before or why you don’t participate fully; it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you’re there. So just go and observe, and reflect on the fact that God gave us five senses with which to experience Him. The Mass is beautiful, holy, and sacred, as is God.

____________________________

But you, beloved, remember the words spoken beforehand
by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ,

for they told you, “In (the) last time there will be scoffers
who will live according to their own godless desires.”

These are the ones who cause divisions;
they live on the natural plane, devoid of the Spirit.

Jude 17-19 NAB

____________________________

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them
will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock.
And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them
will be like a fool who built his house on sand.
The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house.
And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”
Matthew 7:24-27 NAB

____________________________

Pertinent reading:

How I Solved the Catholic Problem
“In place of the “One Faith,” I saw in Guatemala hundreds of “faiths,” hundreds of competing preachers. When there was One Faith, Christianity swept the world like wildfire. At no time in the history of Protestantism has an entire pagan nation turned to Christ. I thought of all the many pagan groups to whom the Catholic Church came and preached the Gospel and who were converted to Christ as a result: the Slavs, the Irish, the Gauls, the Saxons, the fierce Nordic races, the Japanese, Indians of South America, Africans, the list was endless. And here we were in Guatemala as “missionaries,” making Catholics into Protestants. These people had been Catholic for five hundred years. All we were doing was “converting” Christians to our way of understanding the Bible. Not a very impressive thing when you compare it to the 2000 years of Catholic evangelization.”

The Lamb’s Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth
“The central thrust of this piece is that Catholic liturgy offers the best interpretive paradigm for studying the Book of Revelation.”

Pillar of Fire, Pillar of Truth
“The Bible, sacred Tradition, and the writings of the earliest Christians testify that the Church teaches with Jesus’ authority. In this age of countless competing religions, each clamoring for attention, one voice rises above the din: the Catholic Church, which the Bible calls “the pillar and foundation of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15).”


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