In the August before my junior year, I scrambled to rearrange my schedule. I cold-emailed professors, begging them to let me into their classes and hopping on the waitlist of any possible course. Then I came across one called “The Catholic Novel.” The course description read: “All are welcome: religious, agnostic, atheist, non-Christian, just reading, Catholic curious, and ‘questioning.’” I considered myself Catholic-curious, but it came as a surprise that I could enroll despite being sort-of-Jewish and maybe-atheist. On the first day of fall classes, I found myself in English 473 with an assignment to attend Mass three separate times. I was eager to see what this 2,000-year-old commotion was all about.
My first Mass visit was in the basement of St. Mary Student Parish on a Wednesday afternoon. The parish sits on the corner of William and Thompson, just across the street from NeoPapalis. I’d passed it a dozen times and never noticed it before. I locked my bike up, crossed the street nervously and walked into the dim, air-conditioned building. It was a sunny day, but the basement was quiet and still.
The second I sat down, a woman breathlessly approached me. “Would you like to be the reader?” she said.
Maybe I looked like I needed saving. “The what?”
“The reader,” she repeated.
“Oh, thank you, but this is my first time at Mass so I probably shoul-”
“No, it’s easy. You can do it. You’ll do it. Want to do it?”
I reluctantly agreed. Rapidly and without taking a breath, she explained my task. I started to feel like a bit of an impostor, so I jutted in:
“I’m not Catholic.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly caught off guard. “Are you Christian?”
“Hm. Are you Baptized?”
“Well, are you Jewish?”
“Okay, let me think.” She proceeded to think for no more than one full second. “That’s fine. Same God. Old Testament. It’s fine by me. We won’t tell anyone. It’s probably fine. It’s alright.”
She took me to the lectern to show me the book I’d read from and finally introduced herself as Rainey. She told me she’d give me a nod when it was time. I returned to my pew, more nervous than I ever anticipated being on a Wednesday afternoon visit to Mass.
A priest walked onto the pulpit. He murmured some hellos and maybe a prayer — I wasn’t really listening, distracted by my imminent Church debut. When he finished, Rainey suddenly turned around. She looked at me and nodded. A-freaking-men, I thought, here goes nothing.
I walked past the seemingly-endless rows of pews and stood facing the pulpit like everyone else still in their seats. Five minutes before, Rainey told me, “When you get to that part, do not bow to the tabernacle, the crucifix or the Virgin Mary. Find a place where God rests for you. He cannot rest in any of these places for you since you are not a Catholic, but he rests somewhere, just think of him for a moment.”
Remembering Rainey’s instructions, I stood stiff and clammy-palmed, careful not to bow. I closed my eyes, but instead of thinking about God, I wondered how long I was supposed to stand there.
When it seemed like a sufficient amount of time had passed for thinking about where God rested, I found my place behind the lectern and peered at the book. All the rapid instructions Rainey gave me minutes before swirled in my mind. Read only the black words, she said; I read only the black words. Pause at this part and raise your arm; I paused at that part and raised my arm. Everyone repeated something with me. It went on like this for a few minutes and then I was finished. I stepped back, closed my eyes and bowed my head for about as long as seemed appropriate.
Rainey smiled at me as I returned to my seat.
The Mass continued with a short homily, various prayers and ample kneeling. I crossed my arms and did not receive communion like a good non-Catholic. It all went by as one would expect, but when the priest asked for anyone to share grievances or prayers, I was surprised when Rainey piped up, “May all the children of the Abrahamic religions know that they are loved by God, our God, one God,” she said. “That they shall feel and know His love and that they shall know that we are all united in God’s eyes.”
As she spoke, I looked around at all the heads bent in prayer. Instead of making me feel like some kind of strange religious voyeur stealthily observing Catholic rituals, Rainey’s words reminded me I was just another person at church on a warm Wednesday afternoon. I laced my fingers together, bowed my head and closed my eyes like everyone else — if someone had come into the chapel at that moment, they wouldn’t have been able to tell the difference.
For my second Mass, I was at St. Mary again: same basement, different day, different priest. When I went up during communion at my previous Mass visit, I had looked down into the hands of the other priest, but I looked this one directly in the face. My crossed arms interrupted the flow of his communion. Ready to present the Eucharist, he tripped over his words as he noticed my closed-off body. He looked me in the eyes, leveled his face with mine, put his hand on my shoulder and said in a kind voice, “May peace be with you all your days.” It was a comfort I never knew I was missing — like the comfort I’d experienced after Rainey’s prayer. I felt a sense of belonging and peace, even in the basement of an unfamiliar building with little light and few faces I had seen before.
On another Sunday morning at Mass, a priest at St. Thomas the Apostle Church looked over my head to the line of communion-takers behind me, made a Sign of the Cross with the wafer, then waved me aside. It felt like hundreds of pairs of eyes bored into me as I walked back to my seat, seeing me for what I was: an outsider, a fake, unable to take communion.
Soon after, the priest and altar servers left the chapel in a procession carrying the crucifix down the aisle, with their green, gold, white and black robes drifting behind them. I watched them pass by as the organ played in the background. Once the fanfare ended, the woman who had been sitting next to me with her granddaughter turned to me. “I hope your day is full,” she said, then left.
I smiled. It almost seemed like she knew how I was feeling. Something inside me stirred quietly again, then settled. I walked out of the church alongside those who now felt a little less like strangers and into the cold, gray morning.
Maybe God was trying to tell me something on these occasions: That there is mutual friendship or love to be shared with Him, or that there is a universal vision of grace, and Catholicism is the center of it. Maybe He was trying to show me that there are infinite ways to be good to other people. I cannot fully know His intentions — or know whether I believe He exists at all — but I was received with what felt like love by someone at each Mass I attended. And if any laws are regularly broken in life, they are those of human solidarity, social charity and love — laws on which Christianity is built. It was good to see these virtues actually in practice during my three Mass visits — good to be reminded they exist at all.
I don’t plan to start praying every night, confess my sins or convert to Catholicism, but I may return to Mass even after those three required visits. And if my return is not for the grace of Christ, then it will be for the wide and open ceilings of the churches and the way hymns filter through their stained-glass windows like rays of light through water.
And religious beliefs aside, those three Masses and the people I encountered at them made me pause and reflect. I was an outsider; I never knew the prayers, I didn’t know when to kneel or stand up and I never made the Sign of the Cross. But I was not treated as a stranger, or an intruder or even a visitor — just as another person at a church trying to make sense of why we are here on this earth. At a time in my life where I feel the constant pressure to compete with thousands of strangers who are smarter than me, more qualified than me or more driven than me, going to those churches and experiencing something so unfamiliar came as a relief I hadn’t expected. Not one of us is any less worthy than another of the love, kindness and friendship we encounter in this life. Mass reminded me of this — it reminded me that whatever it is we are doing on this earth, we cannot forget that we are doing it together, that we are beings bound together by history, time and even by which pew we decide to sit in when we go to church.
Whatever is up there, around us or below, there is something to be said for quietly sitting beside another person for a while, for taking a stranger’s hand and wishing them peace for the day and for singing, standing and kneeling as one. Even if our prayers are not heard by God, I think it’s alright — we can be sure they are heard by those around us. There is comfort in being side-by-side as we bend towards heaven.