_I'm currently in the middle of Nowheresville, New England visiting my DGF's parents, who live in a retirement home. For health reasons, her mom is rarely able to leave the home. And her father is legally blind, which prevents him from going anywhere on his own.
All of this is to explain the following unlikely circumstance in which I found myself on Sunday morning: in a Catholic church, helping escort my DGF's father to Mass.
I've only been to Mass once before, and that was a funeral Mass (or, as I incorrectly called it yesterday, a "death mass"), so this was a new experience for me. I was instructed ahead of time not to take communion, because I'm not Catholic. (I was baptized Christian, but this is, I learned, unsatisfactory in the eyes of the Catholic church.) My DGF is not practicing, but was baptized Catholic, so according to her father, she was allowed to take Communion if she promised to go to confession within the next 30 days (which she was unwilling to promise). That's right--not 31 days. Not 35. 30. (Later, we looked for this rule online and it seems that you actually have to have been to confession in the 30 days before receiving Communion, but we still aren't totally sure.)
Mass was short. Like, way short. Like under an hour short. We went to the 11 am Mass and made it to breakfast by noon. Perhaps because of the service's length, almost no one bothered to remove their coats. My most recent churchgoing experience before that was an evangelical-type Baptist church, where the service always lasted over two hours, plus socializing afterward. I kind of admired the Catholic efficiency.
There were maybe 250 people attending mass, only five of whom were non-white. Don't get me wrong--I'm fine with white people (some of my best friends are white people), but there was something disconcerting about being in a nearly all-white room. (Yeah, I'm white, too. But still.) Interestingly, one of the five non-white people happened to be the priest, who I think was Latino, and spoke with a heavy accent. It was kind of heartening that all these white people, the great majority of whom looked to be 60 or older, had someone of color as their religious leader--a trend that I've since learned is not uncommon in the Catholic church, since many young priests these days come from non-English-speaking countries, particularly Third World countries.
The church program (which was printed in color, something I'm not sure Protestants would allow) didn't say what was happening when in the service, so I just tried to stand, kneel, and sit when I was supposed to. There was a great deal of ceremony involved. Continuing to survey the attendees, I began getting a distinct sense that this particular church was more the Santorum variety of Catholic than the Kennedy variety--an impression reinforced by the advertisement of a Planned Parenthood vigil later in the week.
When it came time to take Communion, I was pretty sure that lots of people wouldn't go, given the rules about 30 days and being baptized Catholic. But as it turned out, my DGF and I were the only people who did not take Communion. As the people in our row quietly filed to the front of the church, we quietly did not follow them. This was met with disapproving glances from the other parishioners--glances which lingered for an awkwardly long time, shifting from me to my DGF and back again, and I suspect that around this time, it began occurring to said parishioners that we might be not be the nice young men we had originally appeared to be, but rather homosexual women. (My DGF, who tends not to notice these things, insists that "no one really looked at us." I assure you she is wrong.)
Since Lent is approaching, the sermon was largely about giving things up. I guess one rationale for Lent is that giving something up for 40 days kind of purifies you. I was not raised Catholic (decades ago, my grandmother was excommunicated for getting divorced, which soured our family on Catholicism long before I was born). Nonetheless, I emerged from childhood with a near-preternatural susceptibility to guilt, and the whole idea of Lent appeals greatly to this susceptibility. I mentally counted how many days I'd already gone without ice cream (three) and wondered if I could get retroactive credit.
At our post-Mass brunch, I asked my DGF's father about my retroactive credit idea, but he said it didn't count. He also squelched my idea to give something up that I don't feel a need to have anyway, such as cilantro or penises. I asked my DGF's dad what he was giving up, and it turns out that people over 59 don't have to give anything up at all. Immediately it became clear why the church had been packed with senior citizens--they were clamoring to take advantage of the loophole.
Personally, I'm no atheist. My own philosophy is closer to "All steeples point to heaven" (something my excommunicated grandmother used to say). Well, maybe not all steeples, but you get the idea. But the whole experience of Mass made me think about how different my life might have been if I was raised in a church like this one. So many different religions and people and subcultures trying to do what they think is right, but simultaneously certain they've cornered the market on God.