Celebrating mass as a Catholic

I am not a Roman Catholic believer, as many of you realize. Yet I did celebrate mass twice in my life. Alice and I did it once in northern Quebec where we visited our daughter, Marguerite, when she was part of a high school exchange program. Alice and I stepped into a Catholic Church for worship and decided to join the worshippers who walked to the front for mass without asking for permission. I think the priest simply assumed we were Catholic. And as far as we were concerned, we were, and are. We did not feel it necessary to separate ourselves from the other Catholic believers. Okay! We were not Roman Catholic believers, but we were and are Catholic believers, and that was good enough for us.

I did it one more time when, as editor of Christian Courier, I interviewed our Catholic friend Henri Nouwen, who was part of a commune near Barrie. Henry Nouwen knew I was not a member of the Catholic Church, but he invited me anyway to celebrate mass with him and his community after the interview was finished. I accepted gladly. I still remember how he and I made our way through basements with low ceilings and pipes and how we emerged in a small chapel where others soon joined us. I loved the fact that Henry Nouwen did not want to exclude me from the most intimate expression of what it means to belong to Christ and his church. In that sense, Nouwen was a broad-minded, inclusive Catholic believer.

Officially, though, non-Roman Catholic believers are not encouraged to take part in the mass. I do remember that former ICS professor George VanderVelde attended a Roman Catholic study session in Rome years ago, but, although he was allowed to sit in on a mass, he was not allowed to participate. A priest who accompanied VanderVelde during that time also abstained out of respect for George. So the rule is clear: the mass is not an “open table” for Protestants or other non-Roman Catholic believers.

A change in style
But who knows, some years down the road the picture may change.

It may be that the current pope will some day open up the way to the sacramental table to non-Roman Catholic believers. He recently allowed cardinals to vote on whether divorced Catholics may partake at a mass if they are sorry for their sins. For the Catholics to make that a practice, they would have to disregard the so-called infallibility rule concerning official pronouncements by a pope. It seems that the current pope is not that worried about being considered fallible.

It may happen that the Catholic Church will one day split on the issue of papal infallibility. It is one of those issues, that according to Protestant believers, is a trap. Either you are infallible, which means you can never undo a mistake you made in the past, or you are fallible, which means that you may have been wrong in the past, and because of that wrong you condemned to hell millions of believers who followed their consciences.

More importantly, I am looking forward to the day when I may be considered a true Catholic believer by the Roman Catholic Church even when I don't pronounce the infallibility rule of certain papal decisions. The sacrament of holy communion at the table and the sacrament of holy baptism at the font unites all believers as they build their trust on God's grace and sing:

My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly trust in Jesus’ name.

  • Bert Witvoet is a former educator and editor of various magazines, including the Christian Courier, who lives with his wife, Alice, in St. Catharines, Ontario.

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One Comment

  1. My wife and I have attended a number of Roman Catholic masses over the years. We have not taken communion because we understand that the invitation to participate is not open to non-Roman Catholics. Once, attending mass in Reims, France, it was noted that we stayed in our chairs during communion and we also noted that, after communion, a nun moved to a chair in front of us. We learned afterwards that the custom was for nuns to sit in front of those who did not take communion and pray for them. We also attended a Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) once and it was made quite clear that non-LCMO members were not invited to take communion. Even when we worshiped with my dad’s United Reformed congregation about ten years ago, we had to fill out a form and he had to vouch for us.

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