Before I knew it, I was in their car, propped in the passenger seat while he drove and she sat silently in the back. The heat from our bodies filled the car as a stench from somewhere inside us leaked from our pores. Sweat seeped through my worn t-shirt as I guzzled another gulp from my water jug.
“Want some?” I asked, glancing behind me and noticing perspiration pouring from my teammate’s brow.
“Yes please!” It was as if she’d been in the desert eating sand for the past month.
I passed the water back as her dad drove out of the gym parking lot and towards my house. Somewhere along the way, our small talk transformed into a discussion of faith.
“What denomination are you, Kelsey?” the driver asked in his cordial, fatherly voice. My ears had heard sermons a handful of times in my 13 years of life, and those only happened during vacationed family reunions when everybody else went. Even then, it was uncomfortable for me to speak the name “Jesus,” even though I’d heard of him before and bought into the stories.
“Christian,” I said firmly, finally landing on a conclusion.
“Oh,” my friend’s father replied, “I didn’t mean which religion. I meant which denomination.”
Wasn’t there only one group of people who believed in Jesus? And weren’t those people called Christians? I asked myself, feeling panic color my cheeks.
“Christian,” I echoed, less confidently. Jesus was tough enough to discuss, but this conversation had quickly turned its searing eyes on me. The cool air blasted through the filter, landing squarely on my face, but I could feel the sweat begin to form again on my forehead and upper lip. When the driver shifted into park in my driveway, he was only halfway through his explanation about denominations.
I hopped out of the car, grateful for the ride and the timing of escape, and waved goodbye. When I walked in the door, I told my mom about the conversation in the car.
“You said Christian?” she exclaimed, putting a hand to her head. My gut feeling was confirmed. I had done something incredibly wrong.
“You could have said Methodist or Presbyterian – anything but Christian!” my mother continued, her speech gathering speed. “Oh my God, they’re going to think we’re heathens for never taking you to church! Your great-grandma was a Presbyterian so next time someone asks you that question, just say you’re a Presbyterian.”
I had no idea what those words meant, but in that moment, the term “Presbyterian” was forever singed into my brain. I was one, after all.
So, the next year when I enrolled into a Catholic high school, I suppose it must have been easy to spot the religious minority. I sat silently at the library table working on a school project when the librarian approached me. The crevices of old age had sunk deeply into her skin and gravity had taken a toll on her spine. Barely breaking five feet tall, she shuffled swiftly to my table. Unmistakable joy shined from behind her bifocals as curly grey hair framed her wrinkled face. A necklace hugged her neck and the cross pendant hung atop her bosom. She was a nun known for sweetness and spunk, and it wasn’t unlikely for her to freely give a wink and a finger gun.
“What are you working on?” she asked with genuine interest in my project. When I told her, she looked pleased and patted me on the shoulder. Then the conversation took a quick left turn as the dreaded inquiry reverberated from her lips.
“You’re not Catholic, are you?” she asked inquisitively, peering into my soul.
“No ma’am,” I replied.
“What denomination are you?”
“Presbyterian,” I blurted much too quickly. I had learned my lesson the first time.
“Did you know that Catholicism is the only denomination that stems directly from Jesus?” she asked excitedly, holding up her pointer finger and leaving me alone with my thoughts for a moment.
Not this again. I just want to get this project done. I don’t have time for a religion lesson. Don’t all denominations originate with Jesus?
I began looking for another escape route like the one that had saved me last time. The search came up empty and Sister Pauline returned to the table with quickened steps. She smacked a large sheet of paper onto the tabletop and showed me the lineage of Christianity. All I saw were lots of black lines, some of which veered away from one, solid line that started in the time of Jesus.
“See here?” Sister Pauline said, pointing to the beginning of the longest black line. “This is when Jesus lived. And it’s also when Catholicism began.” Passionately, she explained the remainder of the timeline.
“This is when Luther broke off from Catholicism and started the Lutheran faith. And this is when your Calvin did the same thing. See how they were all started by other men long after Jesus? The only originator for Catholicism is Jesus so we trace our steps all the way back to his life, death and resurrection.”
What? My Calvin? I couldn’t understand the information she had so desperately hoped I would absorb. I didn’t know who this Calvin fellow was, nor did I understand why he belonged to me. Nor was I familiar with Luther or Wesley. Much less what it meant for them to “break off.” My confusion and distaste for the conversation must have been evident. She returned to her desk after saying, “I’ll leave this here in case you want to look at it some more.”
Then she was gone. I pushed the paper out of the way so I could finish my project.
It wasn’t until my journey into the Catholic Church more than a decade after Sister Pauline’s lecture that I finally grasped what she was saying. Her version, though technically correct, wasn’t entirely complete.
She failed to mention the struggles throughout the beginning of Christian evangelization. That Christians were persecuted for their faith in Christ. That all people who believe in Jesus at that time were called Christians. That, after centuries of investigating and discerning the Christian faith, the leaders of the church wanted something concrete in which they could summarize their faith. So, in 325 AD, the leaders of the time gathered together at the First Council of Nicaea and constructed a proclamation trusted to encapsulate the beliefs of the original Apostolic church – the church began by the apostles after Jesus’s death and resurrection. After withstanding the test of time, the statement became known as the Nicene Creed and is still acknowledged today by all denominations as the foundational proclamation of Christian faith.
She also left out the fact that in Martin Luther didn’t actually desire to branch off from the Catholic Church a millennium later in 1517. He merely wanted to right some wrongs – 95 of them to be exact – that were occurring due to corrupt leadership in the Catholic Church. When the split occurred, two branches of Christianity remained: Lutheranism and Catholicism. Lutherans were those Christians who chose to follow Martin Luther. Catholics were the Christians who remained with the original church (‘catholic’ simply means ‘universal’).
Others after Luther followed suit, including John Wesley and John Calvin. While I choose to believe the pursuits of these gentlemen were noble, the instability of these denominations worry me.
Let me clarify: I do not think parishioners who attend Protestant churches have unstable relationships with Jesus. In fact, if those services ignite and enhance their relationship with Jesus, I am certainly all for it.
However, what’s to stop a seminary student from “breaking off” from that church? And then another from that church? And another parishioner from that church? Suddenly, there are several churches preaching under the same denomination that have no solid form of unity.
When I was church shopping as a young Christian, the main attraction for me was the preacher. If the preacher enticed and entertained me, I continued going. I even found a Methodist pastor I liked so much I registered as an official member at her church. When I realized that her perception of Jesus and her perception of the world may not be universal throughout her denomination, it made me wonder: Who keeps her in check?
To my knowledge, there are religious bodies that govern pastors, at least in some Protestant denominations. And there are conferences where Protestant leaders come together to reconnect and reinvestigate their doctrine. Yet as a parishioner who spent years searching for a Protestant church to call home, I was never once briefed on doctrine. In fact, I still don’t know exactly what each denomination believes about every issue – or if one Presbyterian church is always in complete agreement with the next Presbyterian church down the street.
I know all Protestants believe in Jesus, of course. But what are their opinions on abortion? Gay marriage? Do they have any special prayers or tools to help them pray? Do they believe in the communion of saints? What is their perception of Mary? What is their perception of God as the Father, God as the Son and God as the Holy Spirit?
As a Catholic, I am confident that I when I walk into any church across the globe there will be universality in its liturgy. I appreciate the opportunity to ask questions about the doctrine and seek answers in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – the book of our doctrine that is used in the Vatican as much as it is in third world countries. And, like every Christian, I wholeheartedly believe the words written within the Nicene Creed. Plus, I relish the opportunity to profess them each week at mass.
Now, I eagerly await the question I dreaded so long ago.
“I’m Catholic,” I’ll reveal with a smile. Then, a bit unlike Sister Pauline, I will inquire about their faith and what they find appealing about it. For in spite of our small differences, I truly want to learn about my neighbors and their relationship with Christ. And, if my questions are returned, my heart will sing its answers back to them.