A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Separate Shores

Anne Kerrigan

Lord, teach us to pray. We stand and watch each other now from separate shores. We lose the way.

Joe Wise, 1939 -, American musician and author, from the song, Lord, Teach us to Pray.

The last few months of 2016, and even into the early part of 2017, have come with a plethora of wakes and funerals. I guess this is to be expected when one approaches the eighth decade of life, but I liked it much better when there were more weddings than wakes!

A friend called me recently to inform me that her husband had died suddenly. Even though he was elderly and had some medical issues, his death was unexpected. The details were, no wake, just a funeral Mass. My friend and her husband were regular churchgoers at a local Lutheran church.

Episcopal Church of the Mediator, Bronx, New York

I found my way to the church with no problem, and as I parked the car, I realised that I had never been in a Protestant church before. Over the course of the years, there just had been no occasion to attend a Protestant ceremony. I wondered if this church would be similar to any of the many Catholic churches I have attended over the years. As I approached the front door, I noticed that the door had a lovely glass inset. Perhaps it was the sight of that door with the small glass window that triggered the recesses of my memory, but I had a sudden flashback to a grammar school incident which stopped me in my tracks. There is some history needed here to understand the ‘incident.’

Christ the Mediator

I grew up in the fifties in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in the Bronx, an enclave in the northwest corner of New York City. I attended the local parochial school, and all my friends were Irish Catholic. We were all good kids, nerds in the true sense of the word. We studied hard, obeyed the rules, and caused no trouble. Actually, we all knew and understood the ramifications of not obeying the rules, and so we decided it was just easier to be good kids. Even though it was a wonderful place and time in which to grow up, it was a very narrow and sheltered environment.

It was mid-June, almost the end of the school year, and everyone was just aching to be off for the summer. Eleven years old is a great age to spend summer on the city streets. There was roller skating, handball, punch ball, sprinklers at the local park, and all the other great street games. It was hard to pay attention to school work with all the visions of summer dancing around in our heads.

This one particular afternoon, my friend and I were walking home from the local library, feeling very excited about the coming summer. The local Protestant church, The Mediator, was located right next to the library.

My friend and I were always a little curious about that Protestant Church but that’s as far as our curiosity went. We just wondered about it because we didn’t know very much about Protestants. All we knew was that the Catholics were right which implied that everyone else was wrong. It was all very black and white with clear delineation. Of course, it is very easy to look back now and understand the lack of vision which existed in my limited world, but my limited world was all I had at that time. There was no interfaith communication, no interaction with other religions. I was at peace and comfortable in my world, with some occasional harmless curiosity.

St Athanasius Catholic Church, the Bronx

On this particular day, being in a very ‘nervy’ state of mind, probably due to the excitement of the coming summer, as my friend and I approached The Mediator, we decided to go up to the front door and look in. Now, this was a very, very daring decision on our part.

Protestant churches were off limits. As far as I can recall, nobody ever even considered going up that long walkway to actually look inside. But, there we were, bold and brazen, deciding to take that drastic step of looking inside the Protestant Church.

We slowly walked up the walkway, which seemed interminably long, and, as we approached the window, we looked around to be sure nobody was watching.

We didn’t see anyone, so we forged ahead. We stood on our toes to reach the glass portion of the door, and we peeked in. By this time, we were so scared that we didn’t even look long enough to internalise what we saw. We then ran as though the devil was chasing us! We ran and ran. What if the nuns saw us? The nuns were always walking around the vicinity chatting with the people in the neighbourhood. What if our parents found out we looked into the Protestant Church? We were terrified. What had we done? For the next few weeks, until school finally ended, we were on edge, waiting for the call to the Principal’s office. It never came. Evidently, nobody had seen us commit our dastardly deed. We never did it again.

Now, here I am again standing at the door of a Protestant church. My reverie is broken as I enter the church, almost feeling right at home. It was very similar to many of the Catholic churches I have attended over the years. People were respectfully sitting in the pews, mindful of the solemnity of the situation. There was a programme for the occasion, and the ushers were handing them out to each worshipper. There were hymn books in each pew. I don’t know what I expected, but I know it wasn’t such similarity to my Roman Catholic experiences.

The organ and singer indicated that the service was to begin, and that organ sounded just like many Catholic Churches, too loud! But, suddenly appeared a significant difference, the celebrant was a woman! Oh, it was wonderful to see a woman preside at the Eucharist. She was welcoming, reverent, articulate, and, on top of all that, she delivered a theologically clear, touching, and poignant homily. The singing was much like the Catholic celebration, a bit hesitant and not too enthusiastic. All in all, it was a lovely tribute to my friend’s husband and to his deep, pervasive faith. The experience was very positive and uplifting, and I hope that if a Protestant ever has occasion to attend a Catholic ceremony, he or she experiences the same warm welcome.

So, what was I ever so afraid of as I looked in that window of The Mediator? I can only think it was the mentality of the times. Each denomination was safe and secure in its own identity, forgetting that we were on the same journey, loving the same God, and following the same Gospel mandates. We could have been arm-in-arm on this journey. Such wasted time! I do know that, at this moment, there are interfaith conversations occurring all over the world. I am so grateful. I hope that those conversations focus on the many things which join us, rather than the differences which separate us. My own spiritual journey has brought me very far from the rigid rules of my youth. Spirituality today challenges me to expand beyond my limited horizons, lest I become too smug in my own beliefs. My experience of daring with regard to looking in that Protestant Church window really was such a childish thing, and I have put it in its proper place in my memory. Yet, it does serve as a reminder to me to be compassionate when I interact with people who still have rigid beliefs, and see no value in interacting with other faiths. I have been there and done that and it was not a pleasant place to be.

I pray not only for them…so that they may be one as you Father are in me and I in you. I have given them the glory you gave me so that they may be one as you and I are one. Jesus’ prayer from John 17:9, 11, 22

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