My father used to point to the ceiling in our living room and claim he could still see a dent made by my head as I jumped up in excitement over discovering that my call was to the Switzerland Geneva Mission. I was nothing if not enthusiastic at the beginning of my mission, and I used the three months between receiving my call and going into the MTC to prepare in every way I could think of.
When I discovered that the mission, although headquartered in Switzerland, included an enormous piece of France, I realized I would most likely be working among French Catholics rather than Swiss Protestants. I knew next to nothing about Catholics.
To correct that gap, I hunted a parish where I could attend church. The first Saturday, I attended Mass in a very large, very ornate, very cold building. While I loved the surroundings, nobody spoke to me and I felt out of touch. The next Saturday, I visited a parish in a modern building, the uncomfortable kind where there are no right angles to the architecture. I was embarrassed when I slipped into a back pew and was immediately shooed away by a woman who told me that seat was reserved for the ushers.
The third week, I discovered St. Christopher’s in North Las Vegas. It was a worn, warm building. The congregation had a large Hispanic component, but enough Anglos that I didn’t feel out of place; the crowd was also large enough on a Saturday evening that I didn’t seem to be an intruder, but not so large that I felt invisible. Best of all, near the end of the service when the priest invited everyone to turn and greet his neighbor, I felt truly welcomed — the people on each side and in the pew ahead looked me full in the face, and shook my hand, and their smiles reached all the way to their eyes. I had found my parish, and I attended Mass there every Saturday evening until I went into the MTC.
I watched and listened, and tried to be a respectful visitor without pretending to be something I wasn’t. That is, I stood, knelt or sat along with the congregation, but I did not cross myself or genuflect before taking my seat. I contributed to the collection with what seemed to be the generally given amount. I certainly didn’t go up to take communion, but as I became familiar with the ritual, I responded when the response didn’t conflict with my belief.
That wasn’t enough, though; I wasn’t getting answers to the questions I had. I wanted to know what, in general, Catholics really believed — not with the goal of arguing with anyone, but to understand. I was savvy enough to know, for example, that despite what I had often heard, Catholics didn’t worship the statues of saints as idols, but I did not understand what the role of saints really was, or why Mary had such a prominent position, and whether typical Catholics took seriously the reports of seeing the image of Mary in various unlikely places. I wasn’t into deep theology, I only wanted to better understand the people I would be meeting, and not assume they believed something that really wasn’t so.
So I called around and found a Catholic instruction class that met on Thursday evenings. It was intended for Protestants who were engaged to Catholics and would be promising to raise their children as Catholics, and for Catholic adults who had drifted away from the Church but whose children were now preparing for First Communion, and for potential converts. The secretary I spoke to didn’t say anything about Mormon missionaries, but neither did she say anything that told me I wouldn’t be welcome. So I went.
It was interesting, and I learned a lot. I still didn’t get the answers to my questions, though, and the class was not designed for asking questions. Also, nobody ever asked me why I was there, so I could never easily explain who I was. After a few weeks, the class leader passed out a flyer giving the name and phone number of the parish priest, and invited anyone who wanted an interview to call for an appointment.
I did. And I went. And as I sat in the comfortable waiting room of a private residence, for the first time I got nervous. Very nervous. Almost too scared to run out the door nervous. But at last the priest came to the door and escorted me into his office, and seated me … and his first words were “So, why do you want to become a Catholic?” I wish I had a picture of his face when I told him that actually I wasn’t there to become a Catholic, that I was a Mormon going to serve a mission in France, and I had some questions, and even though I had gone to church and taken instruction, nobody had ever given me a chance to ask my questions, so I hoped he would talk to me, and I was sorry if I was doing anything wrong or disrespectful, because that really wasn’t my intention, because I thought it was important enough to want to get it right by asking somebody who really understood, and …
And when I finally reached the end of that interminable nervous introduction, he sat back, and smiled. He was a good man. He was startled, and maybe a little disappointed. He was not angry. He was patient. He let me ask everything that occurred to me, and explained without the slightest hint of condescension or disapproval. I tried not to overstay my welcome, and I thanked him sincerely. I wish I remembered his name, because he was certainly kind to a nervous young woman who, looking back at it now, I realize was asking some unintentionally impertinent questions.
When I did get to France, and on the relatively rare occasions when I could coax a companion out of spending P-days playing Frisbee with the elders, and talk her into visiting a church, or an art exhibit held in a decommissioned church, I was comfortable with what I saw. I could watch the largest Catholic congregation I ever saw filing into the church across from our Grenoble apartment on November 1 and understand why they went on that day. I could enjoy the Midnight Mass I insisted our district attend on Christmas Eve. I could be friendly and completely unselfconscious as I greeted the priest who lived around the corner, and who certainly knew who we were. And on those rarest of occasions when we could actually have a meaningful discussion with a serious investigator, I understood the thinking behind the questions and hesitations.
Please feel free to discuss your POSITIVE interactions with other religious faiths, especially Catholicism. And did I say the expectation is that comments will be POSITIVE?