By 1992 I had come to a point of rest. Authority in the Church, up to the point of disobedience to conscience, was fundamental. I still disagreed with our elders on some important matters. We celebrated the Lord’s Supper only bimonthly (50% more often than most Reformed churches!) Admission to Communion and voting power in the church were still identified. The whole anti-Catholic atmosphere in which we lived persisted and bothered me. Nonetheless, I was at peace with the fact that I would be in good heartfelt submission to my elders. To my surprise, at the end of 1991 they asked me to be willing to serve as deacon.
I was rather taken aback by this as I had always been somewhat of a misfit in the church. I said so but was urged strongly to agree. I suppose my new docility had become visible. Nevertheless, newly docile though I was, I was uneasy at the church’s anti-Catholicism, and I discussed this with the elder assigned to us as a family. I told Roel (a Dutch name, pronounced ‘rule’) that I was glad to serve as well as I could, but that I had reservations about some of the specifically anti-Catholic points in our confessions. I was unconvinced that all use of images in worship was evil. We could not have a Cross in our church. We could not have a drawing of Jesus in our denominational magazine. All these were idolatry. As part of the prefatory liturgy for the Lord’s Supper are named all those who “have no part in the kingdom of Christ: such as, all idolaters; all who invoke deceased saints, angels, or other creatures; all who show honour to images; all who resort to or confide in sorcery, fortune-telling, charms, or other forms of superstition; all despisers of God, of His Word, and of the holy sacraments; all blasphemers; all who seek to raise discord, sects, and mutiny in Church or State; all perjurers; all who are disobedient to their parents and superiors; all murderers, quarrelsome persons, and those who live in hatred and envy against their neighbours; all adulterers, fornicators, drunkards, thieves, usurers, robbers, gamblers, covetous persons, and all who lead offensive lives.” (Psalter Hymnal: Doctrinal Standards and Liturgy of the Christian Reformed Church. Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, Inc., Publishers, Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1959. pp. 92-3). The Mass is “an accursed idolatry” (ibid., Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day XXX p. 35). These and similar things I said I was not able to affirm. It was especially the inclusion of Catholic practices in a list of sins taken directly from the Bible, and the placement of these Catholic practices at the head of the list of sins which exclude one from the Table, that I objected to.
Roel pointed me to a passage in the Church Order which amounted to a statement regarding “freedom of conscience.” One could not be bound to anything of which one was not convinced through the Scriptures that it was true. I laughed at the time, pointing out that that amounted to an escape clause through which almost anything might fit, but that if my reservations were understood, I was happy to serve. Early in 1992, I was ordained a deacon and began serving.
I had rather surprised myself by speaking thus of the anti-Catholic provisions of the Reformed teachings. I knew that I had told the truth about my own feelings. I did not know exactly why I felt that way. The Catholic influences that I have mentioned above had much to do with it, and particularly Jim Jordan. I think my hope that something might come of the things Jim had taught was fading by this time. But growing in me was a sense that there was something fairly seriously amiss in these provisions of the Reformed faith. I had engaged in an exchange of letters to the editor in our denominational magazine the year before in which the writer on the other side had, it seemed to me, expressed the very silly view that it would be idolatry to visit a conventional art museum since it would contain pictures of Jesus.
Sometime in the winter of 1992, probably June or July, I changed the route by which I walked, each evening at 6, from my Saturday job to the ’bus terminal. This walk, it turned out, took me past a church. And it turned out to be a Catholic Church.
What fascinated me, indeed, moved me, was the fact that on a Saturday night at 6 o’clock it was packed. I was astonished.
My astonishment would not have been materially reduced by being told what I know now to be the truth, that some were there at Saturday evening vigil Mass in order to keep their Sunday free to go to the rugby match, or even so that they could go out drinking and wake up hung over Sunday morning. They were there. There were a great many of them. And they were very diverse. Why, I wondered, were they there? As I thought of this as an extra Mass for them, in addition to that of Sunday morning, I wondered why they did it. Could it be that they believed in this mediaeval relict?
Prejudices are funny things. They may survive every sort of exposure to reality. I know that I had still lurking in the back of my mind at least three images of the Catholic Church. One was of a dying institution of foreigners and a few descendants of foreigners, ignorant, ill-smelling, able to speak only broken English. A second was of a bureaucracy of worldly cynical men running an institution meant to collect and to manage financial matters for the most part. A third was of a collection of far-left fringe political activists. Only the first had anything to do with Jesus Christ, and then only as a sort of index to a traditional past and culture, not to the Risen Man-God.
And of course I had a fourth image, that of the Church of the Undset novels, of St Thomas Aquinas, of Pope Gregory VII and of Leo treating with Attila, even of my childhood cousins and the Latin Mass, of white-gowned Catholic brides and dark-suited grooms kneeling to receive the Sacrament at a nuptial Mass. Tears were possible as I thought of some of these things.
What I had expected, perhaps, might have been three old women and a nun. What I found was – life! The church was filled to overflowing. The porch was occupied by women with babies. Cars filled the car park and the surrounding street.
And they were so diverse! Our Reformed church was basically a middle-class, literate, mostly Dutch or Dutch-descended society. Islanders, mentally deficient persons, poor people, rich people, none would easily have fitted with us. In my experience some had tried, and failed. Here was every sort of person and economic class. I saw Mercedes cheek-by-jowl with clapped-out ’vans. The full range of skin pigmentation was represented.
Each Saturday I passed that church. Each Saturday I found it the same. The church was full. The people were worshipping. The whole world seemed there, in microcosm.
I was deeply moved by this, and the fancy began to grow on me that perhaps some dramatic event might happen to convert me. Perhaps a priest or a nun would come out, encounter me, engage me in speech, and make a Catholic of me!
One day a horrifying thought came to me: I should pray the “Hail Mary.” I had never conceived such an idea, and it rather revolted me. Yet I could not rid myself of it. I did not even know the “Hail Mary!” I looked it up in a book, at last. And, finally, in fear and trembling, asking God to protect me if it were wrong, I prayed the prayer. I said, “Mary, if you are real, make me a Catholic.” I did this for perhaps three successive Saturdays.
The result was anti-climax. Nothing happened. My feelings faded. Finally, I changed Saturday jobs and no longer went past that Church any longer. I forgot about the whole thing. It was only some time in 1996, after I had been received into the Church, that I thought of the possible significance of the name of that church. It was St Mary’s Church.