by Tamara Schmerse
Part 16 of 17.
16: Roman Catholicism
In the lead-up to Reformation Day, my beloved History Channel had been screening many Lutheran documentaries, and now that it had passed, they were now, for better or worse, focusing on the Roman Catholic Church. I watched shows for and against, and ironically, it was a series on the Spanish Inquisition that first set off a spark in me that slowly grew into glowing embers.
The documentaries were intended to show the brutal cruelty of the Roman Catholic Church, and the horrors that they have committed over the years. But, ever the counter-balance, I reasoned within myself that if the Catholic Church really was the only real, True Church, then all of those actions would be justified: people who spread heresy and threatened to lead people astray from the Truth should be stopped, by any means necessary, and the severity of their sentence should prove a deterrent to any other potential troublemakers. If, that is. But the Catholic Church was wrong, everyone knew that.
I was feeling miserable and confused, and at the end of my rope. I had tried everything and looked everywhere, and could not discern from the tangled mess of denominations which was the True Church of God. I prayed desperately for God to show me where He wanted me to go, or what He wanted me to do next. And I looked eagerly around for the answers.
First of course there were the Roman Catholic Church documentaries that happened to be on every time I flipped the TV on after praying these prayers. But that had to be a coincidence; the RCC was wrong. Then there were the conversations on Facebook, which I now largely sat out of and observed from a distance. Once young lady’s words stayed with me long after I logged off one night: in a scathing attack on a Lutheran, she confidently stated:
“Remember, your church was started by a man. My Church was started by Jesus Christ.”
Everywhere I looked, I seemed to be tripping over Catholicism. I gave good old Google Maps a try; maybe God had positioned my house so that the True Church could be found simply by its geographical proximity to me. Google Maps had me pegged as a Roman Catholic.
I sat down and reviewed my Story So Far. My first experience with religion was with Evangelical Protestant groups, which turned out disastrously. I firmly believed the Truth was not held by them. Traditional Protestant groups came up empty as well – they couldn’t seem to agree on a single thing. I have since read an article written by a young woman in America, who described her own search as looking for the Bride of Christ, when all the Protestant denominations seemed to her like jealous harem girls fighting for the Master’s attention. That is the best way of describing the state of Christianity in the Western world that I have ever heard. And it was brought home to me at work every day, hearing the snide remarks of my workmates against each other and the seemingly minute differences between their churches – they were all tarred with the same Protestant brush to me.
The other two Abrahamic religions had been considered and discarded – for all of its faults, I believed the Truth lay in Jesus Christ. I just had to find the group of people who knew Him best.
And why did I limit my search to the Abrahamic faiths? Simple: my Pentecostal Bible teachers had done their job well in regards to Creation Science; I believed in the truth of the Old Testament. It made a lot more sense to me than the theory of all existence growing over billions of years out of green slime.
So there I was, looking for the Truth of Christ, within the Christian Church. There seemed to be one theme that ran pretty true throughout the different denominations that I had searched: the younger the denomination, the more warped their theology seemed to be. The place that had seemed to be to be closest to the Truth, without actually having it, was the Lutherans. And that left me with only one alternative.
The Roman Catholic Church.
I did not have to look on many websites before I saw the message of their current campaign: “Catholics Come Home.” Theirs was the original Christian Church, the one that all the others grew out of. History proved it.
But that could not possibly be where God wanted me. Catholics were wrong. Everyone knew that.
The clincher came when I decided to throw one more piece of meat to the hungry Facebook lions. I wrote up on my Wall one day “Just out of curiosity, what denomination is everybody?”, and when hours later I began sorting through the chaos that ensued, I made a startling discovery: Beverly, the kind American relative of my husband who had been my main supporter since I first decided to come back to God, listed herself as a Roman Catholic.
I was shocked. This woman was a Christian; I had absolutely no doubt of that. I saw the love and Truth of God in her more than any other person I had ever spoken to in the course of my life. And she was spreading all this Godly love from the base of the Catholic Church? How is that possible? My Baptist friends had taught me so many years ago the exact same thing my parents used to say: you were either Catholic or Christian. There was Christianity, and there was Roman Catholicism; they were different religions. As different as Islam and Judaism. As different as Methodism and Hindu. But here I was, face to face with the first Roman Catholic I had ever actually conversed with, and she had convinced me of her salvation long before I had ever thought to ask her which denomination she belonged to.
So that meant one thing: all these messages I was apparently getting could, possibly could, be pointing me to the Roman Catholic Church after all. It may be possible. I had some work to do first.
I jumped on Google, and Wiki, and Facebook; I scoured the History Channel, I searched the bookselves of my own library and my husband’s shop. I made a pretty big score there: I discovered a 1974 Papal Bible, huge, full colour and leather bound, and had I not been silly and burnt incense too close to it with no safety plate, it would have been worth a fortune. But still, it was the first Bible I had with the Apocrypha, and I had new reading material to pore over.
I found many things that made me uncomfortable. The Apocryphal writings sounded like fairy stories. And in the colour photographs at the front of the Bible, there was one of an embarrassingly expensive gold and jewel encrusted crown worn by the Pope. That could feed a LOT of starving children in Africa, if the Methodists got their hands on it.
Another great book I found was called Could You Ever Become A Catholic? It touched on many issues that Protestants feel uncomfortable about when first looking into the Catholic Church. Mary being the major one, and prayers to Saints coming in a close second. The more I read the less uncomfortable I felt about these practises… but I could never bring myself to actually do them.
So I thought, just for the fun of it, how about I take Google Maps up on it’s challenge and go to the Catholic Church that was two blocks from my house on Sunday. Just to see if this message I seemed to be getting was possible.
And the first thing I thought, when I walked into the unassuming white building that Sunday morning, was yes, it is possible. It is SO possible! I think this is finally it!
Looking back now, I probably felt that way in part because the Catholic Church, far from being the culture shock that I was expecting, was really not that much different from the Methodist Church I had spent two years in. There was a wide stage and a band, complete with electric guitar and drum kit, set up on one side. There was only one small stained glass window in the building, the seats were modern soft chairs, the wooden cross up on the wall looked the same at the Protestant ones, and the only thing that looked in any way different was the table set up in the middle of the “stage” with two large candles burning on it, which evidently was the Altar.
The priest seemed like a nice, friendly man, at least that was what I garnered from his smiles – with his thick Korean accent I could barely understand a word he was saying. And another interesting thing that took me a little by surprise, was that apart from one obviously Irish girl who sat on the opposite side to me, every single person in the packed-out service was a South Sea Islander. Having learned from my studies of Islam as well as conservative Protestant denominations the importance of men wearing men’s clothes and women wearing women’s clothes, the sight of these Islanders dressed up in their Sunday best, with the women in pants and the men wearing skirts, was a start to me indeed. However, by this time I was pretty sure I had found God’s True Church, so anything like that that went against what I had previously learnt, must have meant that my previous understanding was flawed, not the stance of the Holy Mother Church.
After the Mass I found a lady who seemed to be “somebody”, and who also appeared to speak English. I told her I was interested in becoming Catholic. I had learned from my reading that the steps one took to joining the Church were called RCIA, the Rites of Christian Initiation for Adults. I asked her whom I should speak to about RCIA.
She thought for a minute, and said that there was probably no one in this church that could help me (!), that I would probably have to go to the Cathedral in the city. That should have been my second clue (the first being the electric guitars!). But, undeterred, I wrote down the details she told me and cleared a time in my schedule when I could take a train ride into Brisbane and visit the Cathedral to investigate RCIA. I had finally, after a long search, found the Church that God wanted me to be in, so I wanted to waste no time in joining it.
At the Cathedral, I was directed to the Tribunal Office. I felt a little uncomfortable as I tried to explain to the lady behind the desk that I felt God wanted me to join the Roman Catholic Church. She seemed to be a regular office administrator, who would have been more likely to ask about my taxation details rather than my spiritual life. However, as I sat with her for over an hour, talking about my religious history and reasons for wanting to join the Church, we seemed to connect in some small part, and she handed me a ton of paperwork and told me to sign here, here and here, and we could get my application underway.
The first step, before I could even start these RCIA classes, was to get an annulment from my first marriage. This was something I had been prepared to be told, but could not possibly have been prepared for what it actually entailed.
I had to fill in numerous papers; get a signed statement from the priest at the parish I was currently attending to prove my regular attendance; two signed character witnesses from employers or other people of authority who had known me for more than two years; and signed statements, which had to be taken in front of a priest, from relatives or friends who had known me bother before and after my first marriage. That would be difficult, I mentioned, as my relatives all lived in different states. That was no problem, the lady told me, as they could go into their local Catholic Church and do the interviews there.
All of these papers then had to be sent of to Rome to be reviewed by the Pope. The Pope of Rome was interested in my previous marriage?? It all seemed very strange, but if that was what I had to do to join the True Church, then I would not let anything stop me. Then however, the conversation took on a decidedly sinister edge, when the admin lady, Debbie was her name, told me firstly that this process would likely take twelve to eighteen month, cost me over a thousand dollars, and that a statement also had to be taken from my ex-husband.
That sent chills down my spine. The last time I had seen my ex-husband was when he was being escorted out of my parents’ house, screaming death threats at me over his shoulder. He then proceeded to have his cronies call me in the middle of the night every night for three weeks, saying things like watch out for the bricks that were going to come crashing in my windows when I least expected them. All of this was over seven years previous, but I had heard from old friends via Facebook that he had recently reacted with the same amount of violence and anger, when my name had been mentioned by one of them. After seven years. This man was violent, mentally unstable and frighteningly unpredictable. And now I had to get him to go to a priest to sit down and write out a statement about our marriage just so I could join a new church?
Being sure as I was that my joining the Catholic Church was God’s plan for me, I sadly nodded and headed out of the office and towards the train station. It was a lot for me to take on at that point in my life; my mother had Dementia and my father and myself were looking after her at home. It was very difficult and stressful, and knowing that I now had to deal with this as well, seemed almost unbearable. And where in the world was I going to get $1000 from? Most of my meagre wages went toward supporting my parents. This was a big hurdle indeed, but if it was God’s will that I become a Catholic, then I would do whatever I had to do. God was more important to me than anything else, and doing His will was always going to be the best thing I could do, for my self or my family.
However, like Jane Austen after accepting the marriage proposal of her country friend, I awoke screaming in a cold sweat in the middle of the night. NO. This was not what God wanted me to do. Surely. A loving, merciful God would never ask me to put my family’s safety at risk by contacting a violent, unpredictable man who had threatened them in the past. Especially with what we were all currently going through. I had studied the Gospels inside and out, and knew well the all the stories of people repenting of their former sinful ways and turning to Jesus. Nowhere had I ever read anything about filling in application forms, getting character witnesses, contacting dangerous mistakes from your past or paying $1000. And the acceptance of the Lord had always been instantaneous. The tax collector, the Endometriosis sufferer, the woman at the well – they believed, they repented, they were saved. Right then and there.
I could not believe that the True God, the God of love, mercy and forgiveness, would seriously want to put me through that trauma in order to forgive my sins and let me be a part of His True Church.
I jumped out of bed and raced to my computer. Heart pounding, I emailed the woman at the Tribunal Office and told her to scrap my application. Please, please PLEASE do not contact my ex-husband. Neither I nor my family could deal with the stress at the moment.
I crawled back into bed and cried myself to sleep. God had shown me what He wanted me to do, and I was unable to do it. I had failed. I was never going to be a part of the True Church. I didn’t deserve to be.
The next day I quickly emailed Beverly to tell her about my harrowing experience, and consequent decision to halt my application process. She understood entirely. She was kind and understanding and sympathised with me. Althought still believing wholeheartedly in the Truth of the Roman Catholic Church, she did not agree with the harsh requirements for divorced persons wishing to enter RCIA. She was sponsoring a number of young women who were suffering through the process I had just weaselled my way out of. It was neither right nor fair.
So what do I do now? It was Sunday the very next day and I had no idea where I was going to be come ten o’clock. She told me to do whatever made me feel comfortable for that weekend, and we would talk about it more during the week. I figured I might as well go back to the Methodist Church that I had called home for two years, even though it had been a good six months since I had been there. At least it was a familiar place, and I should feel comfortable.
Well, the welcome I got when I arrived certainly comforted me. People rushed from every corner of the Big Tin Shed to throw their arms around me and welcome me back. I’m not sure if I’m back, I cautioned. I’m just here today. That was good enough, they all said. So I sat in my usual seat and prepared for the service.
Nothing had changed. I loved each and every person who was up on that stage, and I believed them when they all said that they loved God and were there to worship Him. However, the whole service was the same irreverent jumble it had been when I quit the Methodist Church half a year earlier. All women and children. All fun and games and song and dance. No structure, no reverence. No humility. No worship.
I actually felt my skin crawl.
I had to leave as soon as it was over, and I knew, though having no idea where I was going from there, that I would never be back.
Part 17 will be published on Friday!