Stained Glass, VI: Why None of Us Should Ever Have Left the Mother Church
And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. —Matthew 16:18
Brian Doyle was my favorite writer in my favorite journal, The Christian Century, until he died of a brain tumor at the age of 60 last May. Brian’s Irish Catholic piety was so charming and contagious that he tempted me now and then to rejoin the Mother Church.
He told us stories about his arch-Catholic grandmother, who would launch into a diatribe against counterfeit Christianities at the flimsiest of excuses.
Your Methodists, said my grandmother, pursue a method, but not one of the poor creatures can explain what that means, which tells you all you need to know about the Methodists. The same thing is true with Presbyterians; bless their souls, when you ask them what is a presbyter they stammer and mumble in the most abashed fashion, and then return to making shoes or chipping tombstones or whatever it is they do. Similarly your Episcopalians, who could not identify episcopality if you gave them money and whiskey, and your Congregationalists, whose religion is named for the way people sit in rows. You might as well name yourselves the Pew People. And then consider the Lutherans, who are named for a Catholic monk, and the Baptists, who are named for taking baths, and the Calvinists, who are named, God help us all, for a Frenchman. At least the Jews are named for a place they came from, and of course Our Lord Jesus Christ started out Jewish, until the wedding at Cana, where by the virtue of his first public miracle he created the True Faith. He may have done miracles before that time, but of those performed privately we know not. Of the Christian traditions only Catholicism, the One True Faith, is properly named, as you see, because catholic means for everybody, which it is.
The One True Church, Holy and Roman, the Church Eternal, Our Mother the Church, built on the rocky shoulders of St. Peter, watched over by His Holiness the Pontiff, steward of the bridge between God and humanity.
So what beautiful color and useful shape does the Roman Catholic Church contribute to the stained glass mosaic of global Christianity? Why should none of us ever have left the Mother Church? Well, the first reason is that the Church is supposed to One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic. Those are the four defining marks of the Christian Church according to the Nicene Creed. Protestants and Catholics agree that the Christian Church should be One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, but it’s not, is it?
It’s not One, or doesn’t look like it; it’s multiple, it’s many, it’s fractured, it’s splintered. As soon as Luther posted his 95 theses on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg and told Christians they didn’t need the pope and the magisterium at the Vatican to do their thinking for them and to do their own thinking for themselves, that’s just what Christians have been doing now for almost exactly 500 years, with a vengeance.
Depending on how you count, there are somewhere between 1,000 and 30,000 Christian denominations in the world, several hundred in the United States alone, and that is not a unified witness to God’s truth. Instead of seeing God’s truth through a beautiful, polychromatic stained glass window, it is as if we are trying see God through a broken windshield, splintered, and spider-webbed by a bullet or a pebble.
The Church is not One, or doesn’t look like it, and it’s not Holy, or doesn’t look very holy. In the seventeenth century, almost exactly 100 years after Luther, Protestants and Catholics started killing each other and by the time The Thirty Years War was finally finished, eight million Christians were dead.
The Christian Church is not One and it’s not Holy, and it’s not Catholic, which means for everyone everywhere at all times.
The Christian Church is not One, and it’s not Holy, and it’s not Catholic, and it’s not Apostolic, or at least Pope Francis would tell me that my ordination is not apostolic, because my ordination does not trace its lineage all the way back through Francis, to Benedict, to John Paul, to Gregory, to St. Peter himself, the Rock on which Jesus anchored his church and to whom Jesus gave the keys of the Kingdom.
So one reason we all ought be Catholics is The Unity Reason. There’s also The Faithfulness Reason. That is to say, for a thousand years, the Church of Rome was the sole guardian of everything that was highest and best in European culture.
The Presbyterian preacher Eugene Peterson has a nice phrase; he talks about “a long obedience in the same direction.” When we Protestants stop looking at the Roman Church through the Mr. Magoo spectacles of Martin Luther and John Calvin, it turns out that the Mother Church practiced “a long obedience in the same direction” for a thousand years.
My friend Stephanie teaches Early Church History at Garrett Seminary down the road, and she told me the other day that when the Vandals sacked Rome in 455, civilized life in Europe was on the verge of collapse; thousands of Romans were shipped to Africa to be sold as slaves. The Bishop of Rome, Leo I—later Leo the Great, the first pope to be so labeled—became, for all practical purposes, the Emperor of the Western World; it fell to Leo to rebuild the city and keep all Romans fed and sheltered and defended.
And for a thousand years, with the exception of a few missteps along the way, like the Crusades and the Inquisition and indulgences, and bishops who were for sale, the Roman Church practiced “a long obedience in the same direction.” The Dark Ages were just that—dark indeed—but where there was light, where there was humanity, the Church probably had something to do with it.
Nuns built the first hospitals in their convents and cared for the sick and the desperate. Monks fed the hungry and sheltered the impoverished in their monasteries. The Church was Source and Guardian to all that was highest and best in European thought and art and life.
Pick a name: it’s likely he created his art in service to the Mother Church: Michelangelo, Caravaggio, da Vinci, Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Franck. In the darkest of ages, the brightest of flourishings flared up here and there to punch pinpricks of light into the night.
So there’s The Unity Reason and The Faithfulness Reason. There’s also The Liturgical Reason. That is to say, Roman Catholic liturgy is set up to serve the pre- and post-literate. You see, here’s the thing about Protestant worship: don’t you think there are too many words? That it’s excessively verbal?
Martin Luther posted his 95 bullet points to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg 77 years after Gutenberg came up with the greatest invention since the wheel. Literacy rates in Europe are exploding, so Lutherans and Calvinists learn to take full advantage of the spoken and written word, so within days of that Halloween 500 years ago, Luther’s 95 bullet points are published as pamphlets and end up in the mailboxes of anybody who is anybody, including the mailbox of Pope Leo de Medici, and the sermons are 90 minutes long, and for the first time Christians are reading their Bibles in German and in French, so Protestants—especially, I’ll say it, the Presbyterians—lived and died by the written and spoken word.
Roman Catholic liturgy was established way before the printing press to serve the pre-literate. Thus the stained glass windows. This is the Poor Man’s Bible. Nobody can read books, so the early Church began telling her stories and her truths with colorful glass. It was a preliterate world.
But this is 2017, and now we are a post-literate society. Now we communicate with images—Instagram and Snapchat. We want something to look at, and so it just seems to me that that’s one of the gifts of the Catholic Church—capital ‘C’— to the Church catholic—little ‘c’.
There’s this wonderful word in chemistry and in medicine. Do you know what ‘multivalent’ means? An antibody is said to be ‘multivalent’ if it has several surfaces by which to attach to the toxic antigen it is built to attack. If that scientific sesquipedalianism is too much for you, you could substitute ‘multifaceted.’
Roman Catholic worship is multivalent; there are a number of ways for the worshiper to attach to God through it. Roman Catholic liturgy is so sensual.
It’s visual; there’s a lot to see—loud colors, gilt surfaces, statues, ornate columns, the crucifers, the garish, snappy vestments of the priests.
Roman Catholic worship is aural; there’s a lot to hear—music and words.
Roman Catholic worship is tactile: the baptismal font is in the narthex and you tap the water on your way in to cross yourself to remind yourself of your own baptism.
Roman Catholic worship is olfactory; the fragrance of the incense is a sweet-smelling sacrifice lofted to heaven.
Roman Catholic worship is gustatory: you taste the host and the wine.
Roman Catholic worship is kinetic; you move. You genuflect, you kneel, you stand, you come forward to take the sacrament. Roman Catholic worship is multivalent, multi-sensual.
Look, I love being a Presbyterian, I love working on my sermons, I like to think that once in a while—not so often maybe, but once in a while—they might inspire or entertain or educate, but Protestant worship can be a little dry and verbal and rational and linear, right? A little less room for mystery, wonder, splendor, glory, and awe?
Have you ever been to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem? A bunch of us were there exactly a year ago, and we went to the Church of All Nations in Gethsemane. Beautiful place. Filled with exactly the types of interesting things to look at that I’ve been talking about.
When we were there, we noticed a little plaque on the wall: “Please, no explanations inside the Church.” The sign was meant to instruct the tour guides not to give their history lessons to their tour groups in a place that is meant to be holy and quiet. But it’s good advice for Protestants at worship too, right?
Another way to put this is to say that the words we use in worship should be more doxological than theological. At divine worship we should be talking TO God, not ABOUT God.
Roman Catholic worship is a lot of talking TO God, right? The homily is about five minutes long and it’s generally not very good—don’t tell my priest friends I said that. They’re not there to EXPLAIN God; they’re there to PRAISE God; they’re there to TASTE God, quite literally. The thrust and energy of the liturgy is moved from the pulpit to the altar.
So there’s The Unity Reason and The Faithfulness Reason and The Liturgical Reason, and can I give you just one more reason? I want to tell you a story and it will take two minutes and then we’ll be done. The last reason is The Hagiography Reason. Hagios is a Greek word which simply means ‘holy,’ and graphos is a Greek word which means ‘writing,’ so ‘hagiography’ is writing about the saints. I love the saints.
I said this a couple of weeks ago: I am fascinated by what kind of character and virtue are shaped by the traditions we’ve been talking about. What good are these various styles of Christianity? What beautiful human beings—or otherwise—do they produce?
It’s the same question you ask of other institutions, right? What kind of person do you become after 30 years in the Ku Klux Klan? What kind of character do you build after 30 years with the Nazis or the Skinheads? What kind of person do you become after 30 years with the Republican party, or the Democratic Party?
What kind of person do you become after 30 years of listening to long but thoughtful Presbyterian sermons? What kind of moral muscle do you pack on after 30 years of praying with The Book of Common Prayer? What kind of virtue do you learn after 30 years of taking the body of blood of Jesus Christ himself into your very person at the sacrament?
So here’s a story from the life of my favorite saint. Did you know that Francis of Assisi was richer than God in his youth? His father was Italian, obviously, but made millions trading the latest fashions in Paris; Francis’ father loved France so much he named his son ‘Francis’, so Francis’s nickname is Frenchy, of course.
Frenchy is a snappy fashionisto and party animal himself in his younger years; they say he partied like an Ann Arbor frat brother when he was a teenager, but it was all vaguely unsatisfying, so in his young adulthood he forsook it all to live by himself in a broken down monastery. People were so fascinated by his odd new lifestyle that it didn’t take long before he attracted disciples and admirers, and the Franciscan Order of monks was born.
One time the mother of two Franciscan friars came begging at Francis’ monastery. She had nothing to eat. Francis asked the brothers, “What have we to give her?” The brothers responded, “We have nothing in our home.” Francis asked, “What about the church?” The brothers replied, “There is nothing of value in the Church except our only New Testament.”
Books were rare and precious in the thirteenth century, of course. It might take a scribe a year to copy a book by hand, so in the thirteenth century, a book would have cost about as much as we pay for a new car.
Francis told the brothers, “Give our mother the New Testament so that she can sell it for her needs. I think that our Lord and HIS Mother will be pleased more by giving it to her than if we read from it.”
The woman sold Francis’ New Testament, and lived for two years on the proceeds.
What a strange thing Francis is trying to teach us. He’s saying that it’s more important to LIVE the New Testament than to READ it.
So that’s the kind of life that is shaped by the Roman Catholic Church. She is Mother to us all, and she deserves our respect.
 Brian Doyle, “Grandmother’s Communion,” The Christian Century, November 13, 2013, pp. 10–11.
 The title of Eugene Peterson’s book, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2000).
 Jürgen Moltmann, The Spirit of Life: A Universal Affirmation, trans. Margaret Kohl (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), p. 73.
 Donald Spoto, Reluctant Saint: The Life of Francis of Assisi, (Penguin, 2003) pp. 174–175.