This semester I’m teaching “Christian Worship” at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University. It is a joy and a privilege to teach theology to these 26 young men and women. I find the students to be very interested in theological questions, open to learning new things, and sincerely grateful to be challenged by new questions and issues.
The students at CSB/SJU are about 2/3 Catholic, but with growing numbers of Protestants – mostly Lutherans in these parts. Most of the students by far come from church-going families. But like most everywhere, more students from a “secular” background are starting to appear. And also like most everywhere, increasing numbers of the young students do not believe in or practice the faith they grew up with. We have students from across the U.S., but most of our students are from the Midwest. And a few, though their numbers are increasing, grew up with a non-Christian religion and/or come to us from other countries. Our ethnic diversity is gradually increasing.
I require the students in “Christian Worship” to attend three Sunday eucharist services – either two Catholic Masses and one Protestant communion service, or the other way around. Obviously they’re not required to pray (though I’m sure most do), but they are required to make observations and apply their knowledge from class study. Many students choose to attend student Masses on campus and area Lutheran churches, but some attend Catholic or Protestant churches in their hometown, which could be anywhere in the state or across the country.
I find it endlessly fascinating to read students’ comments and observations. The comments I have selected below have no claim to scientific representation. They are simply some interesting comments on what one group of young people sees at Sunday Eucharist.
* * * * *
I could see many students getting very emotional, some even started crying during the prayer. This seemed strange to me as a non-believer. I found myself wondering, “Why is it such an emotional thing for you, don’t you do this every week?”
I thought the Catholic service was very prayerful and the majority of people seemed very devout and respectful of the mass that has happening.
I think the Catholic mass is tough because there are not a lot of options for engaging with the people, but when the homily is dry and not very deep, it was especially hard to stay focused.
The people kept more to themselves and didn’t really sing or get into the songs as much as the Protestant churches do.
I feel as though the majority of the students and faculty are there because they want to be there and are excited to celebrate Mass and are not just there to go through the motions and fulfill their obligation.
Some parts of the Mass were slightly boring, but the constant standing and sitting seemed to counteract it. It was kind of hard to follow. It was not like my Lutheran church at home because the bulletin did not allow you to follow the service exactly.
Because I grew up Lutheran, I never really heard Catholic priests sing during their services. I think that when they do the Gregorian chanting during their prayers at student Masses it is amazing and very interesting to hear.
Something I found unappealing was how much the priest chanted. When he chants it sounds to me like we are in a cult and he is the leader. He could have spoken in a normal voice and I would have been able to take it more seriously. I understand that singing is supposed to make it feel special and otherworldly but it just made me equate it with a cult. At my Lutheran church at home, the pastor does sing some things but not nearly as much as the priest did.
The way the priest blesses the bread and wine with the chanting and organ has a mystical ring to it that I find extremely cool. It is very easy to understand something special is going on in the liturgy of the Eucharist when at Mass in the Abbey.
I really enjoyed the Lutheran service; however, I enjoy the Catholic Mass much more. This isn’t because I’m Catholic, it’s more because I feel that the Lutheran service lacks a lot of the symbols the Catholic mass has. … One thing that I didn’t enjoy was how they knelt to receive communion. I understand that the host represents Jesus Christ, however, I don’t feel that we need to get on our knees to receive him.
The Catholic Church only allows men to be priests and this was in the back of my head… In Protestant churches, women are able to be ordained and act as leaders within their church, whereas in our Catholic church, women are still able to play important roles, but they are not allowed to be ordained. This conveys a male-dominated culture, despite the positive messages I received during the Mass.
I like how there are two big screens that project the hymns and prayers which I think helps include those who do not know every response.
The 11:00 service at my Lutheran church is a contemporary service with a worship band and modern worship songs. I thought the service was very lively, especially considering that the congregation is almost entirely over 50 years old. The sermon lasted almost 25 minutes. I thought that this was slightly unappealing.
The worshippers in attendance were slightly more middle age or older and very few children were there. Most of the older worshipers seemed intensely engaged in the mass.
When looking at the worshipers from an anthropological viewpoint, I noticed that most people were middle aged to elderly. They have a Catholic school, so I thought it would include a younger audience.
What was appealing to me about this Mass was that the sense of community was almost palpable.
Of the three services that I attended, this was by far the most interesting to me. I think this is because I had never attended a Lutheran service before. Overall the service was much more engaging than a Catholic mass. Something that was appealing about the service was that the order of it was actually pretty similar to a Catholic mass. This made me feel comfortable and though I did feel a little out of place, the familiarity of the structure of it made me feel welcome. The worshipers there seemed more lively than the two Catholic masses that I attended but were equally respectful and attentive. One thing that was really appealing to me about the service was that the pastor was a woman. This was completely foreign to me as I have only attended Catholic masses before.
I was amazed by how well the priest at the student Mass was able to relate the readings of bible passages to current events and problems that we face in today’s society. He talked about how women lead us to truth, pointing to important women in the bible. He talked about the current water crisis in different areas of the world.
The priest or monk held a silver pot, he hung it until he arrived at the altar. And then he walked around the altar, it seemed like the beginning of the whole liturgy. I’ve never seen such a formal liturgy before, especially the peculiar smell from that silver pot. I think that probably could dispel evils. … Although I had participated in some worship before in my home country and on campus, none of them gave me such an extraordinary feeling, peaceful and relaxed, but also solemn.
I thought that the overall experience of going to the Abbey for an Ash Wednesday service was quite amazing. One thing that was appealing to me was the community feel of the whole mass. An appealing thing that I saw was how organized and systematic the mass was. It was well made and it seemed to flow with ease. But I did not like how if this was your first time going to church at SJU, which it was for me, that you kind of felt excluded. Many of the responses people just had to memorize. They were not on the leaflet. Now it was not a huge deal but it made me feel like I was the outsider which I was. On the leaflet there were words that were in a different language which I would assume would be in Latin.
I enjoy the Catholic mass more than the Lutheran service. I feel that there is more symbolism and a correct process during the celebration or sacrifice. I am Catholic so I may seem biased towards this subject, however, I enjoy the fact that a Catholic mass involves more spirituality.
I found it appealing that the Lutheran pastor would greet people as they walked in and at the end of service he would greet them as they walked down the stairs. It really made it seem like he was just another person and not this hierarchy figure. Another thing that I liked was that in the leaflet there were the responses printed in there so it seemed that I was more welcome and included instead of being excluded because I do not know the responses.
During the Eucharistic prayer at the student Mass we gathered around the altar in a semi-circle. When we actively gather around the altar, we in some way come to know God better. Though Abbot John is an abbot and what we call a higher authoritative figure, through his sermon he really did not seem to come across as such. Abbot John is about living as an equal disciple – it’s the aftermath of Vatican II.
I had a very nice lady sit next to me, and she helped me navigate the Lutheran service when need be. Afterwards we got to talking. I noticed that whenever I mentioned something pertaining to Catholicism, she seemed rather annoyed. I got the feeling that she wasn’t too fond of the Catholic church. Nevertheless, she was very nice and encouraged me to come back anytime. … Going to this Lutheran church helped reaffirm a desire to seek future employment primarily within the Catholic church.
What was unappealing to me was the length of the priest’s homily. It was practically read off a piece of paper word for word.
The Eucharistic ministers in this parish stood on the first stair of the altar as they were distributing communion. This obviously made them taller than everyone else, which I did not think was necessary. I could see how this might create a slight division between those receiving and those distributing communion.
Overall, I prefer my church to the Catholic church. I think the fellowship and familiarity make it more enjoyable for me. In my church I know everyone in the congregation and feel part of God’s family.
The seating seemed to elevate the monks, who were also in attendance sitting in the stalls behind the altar, to a level above the congregation – as if the space behind the altar is reserved for those who live their lives by God. In a modern context, I am sure it is not the purpose of the practice to create a separation, but that’s the feeling I got from it. But I have always thought it was pretty cool to attend mass with the monks. It added a larger dynamic to the mass that you don’t get at most churches.
There is something about how the Catholic Mass is structured that gives the priest an authority that is natural to me. This is something that is truly Catholic, that the priest is to act as Jesus in the present. That is why it makes sense to have the priest dressed in vestments that make him stand out. They are ordinary guys that have been given the great responsibility to lead a group of people closer to God. They should stand out from the crowd.
The singing at Mass seemed to be a little too emotionless for my liking. This type of singing in the Catholic Church could impede the congregation’s ability to feel a profound closeness with the Holy Spirit. Having said that, I understand that I do have a bias towards the style of worship that the non-denominational Protestant churches I have gone to use.
Since every Mass follows the same ritualistic responses, a lot of the time they can seem very lackluster.
Mass was slightly dull, but that also could be because it was much different than my Protestant home church. I found it kind of difficult to follow along in this service because the bulletin had very little information whereas the bulletins at my church are very detailed and specifically point out what is happening at each moment.
The priest seemed to be sitting on a throne, as if he were a king, and when people walked up to the altar they had to bow down to him. I don’t necessarily like how it seems like the priest is much above us, which is a typically Catholic tradition.
I found the casualness at the nondenominational church to be appealing, if only because it made me feel more comfortable and more at home. However, I think most of that has to do with not growing up Catholic and not completely understanding the traditions of Catholicism.
I think what is very unappealing to me is the fact that everyone drinks from the same cup and that is a breeding ground for germs. I think it is icky and unsanitary. I also do not like the bread the church uses. At home we use real bread that is baked by the church ladies, but here they use the little circles of bread and I do not care for that. I know that this is a typically Catholic practice, so I should have expected it.
I began to understand the feeling of being an outsider… I did not know many of the new alterations to the responses to prayers and such. After I fumbled up once or twice, I decided to keep quiet.
During the Nicene Creed, people still didn’t know the new version. The priest laughed when he heard the obvious struggle by the community. To help everyone out, he turned on his microphone so that those who were struggling could follow along.
I liked how welcoming the people were at the Lutheran church. They noticed that I was a new face and I was welcomed in by a few people. It was easier to follow along during the service because everything was either on the slideshow or was printed in our handout.
While I originally liked the informal feel of the first Catholic student mass I attended at the Abby Church, I liked the formal feel of the Palm Sunday mass even more. The sprinkling of holy water made me feel a deeper connection to God, and the strong incense made me feel as though God was truly present at the mass. As a Lutheran, this class truly gave me a new outlook on Catholic mass. The formal atmosphere especially added to my connection to God, and I will look to attend a Lutheran service that exemplifies these aspects of worship in the future.
As a Catholic, I felt very comfortable and I fit in. However, if I was of a different branch of Christianity or even a Catholic who had never attended there, I think that I would not have felt very comfortable or welcome because everyone else knew exactly what was happening in the mass.
Most Catholics I know would be comfortable with how Mass is usually done but I don’t think an outsider would enjoy it as much if they don’t know the meaning of all the rituals and symbol like I do, though I don’t go to Mass anymore.
This Lutheran service was my first time ever attending any Protestant church and I have to say that overall the experience was super liberating. … This was the first worship service I had ever attended where the pastor didn’t have any altar boys with him. It made it seem like the pastor wasn’t on a pedestal where he needed others to be there for him. … They even had a projector set up for all the hymns and the responses. I could have come to this mass knowing nothing about Christianity or the Lutheran denomination and I still would have been able to participate. For a church that is only a block away from my house, it was very welcoming to see that a place that seemed so unfamiliar to me made me feel more inclined to participate than a Catholic church did. … It was strange to go to a different church and experience something so similar but different. It was basically a Catholic mass that was more welcoming and open to newcomers like myself. I was able to come in and participate in Communion with this congregation and I was welcomed with open arms. More Catholic churches should try and emulate this.
After attending two Catholic services, I’ve come to the realization that the Catholic mass is much less welcoming than a Protestant mass. The bulletins are very uninformative and hard to follow. They don’t tell you what’s happening when, who’s doing what, or any of the responses. It just feels a little unwelcoming when everybody else is able to respond to the Father or the scripture reader while I stand there in silence not knowing what to say. At my church services, our bulletins are very descriptive and I much rather prefer that.
Although Mass was unwelcoming for those of us that aren’t Catholic, it seemed like a very welcoming and communal place for Catholics because they all shared the same symbols and rituals. I like how the Catholic church maintains its tradition and rituals, even with all the changing times. The strictness and strong beliefs of the Catholic church are probably why so many people choose to stick with Catholicism.
The Lutheran church was really welcoming. There was even a person who knew that I was not a member, but said that she was glad I was able to join them today. They are a lot livelier than the Catholic Churches I have been to, and feels more like a modern church because the Pastor just dresses like everyone else. Even so, the order of the worship was a lot like Catholics’ Order of Mass.
There was about the same amount of singing at the student Mass as I am used to from the non-denominational church I attend at home. One unappealing thing to me was that the worshippers were very unenergetic and lethargic compared to what I am used to. At the church I go to, the worshippers are constantly moving around to the words during worship songs with their hands held up high.
When I entered the auditorium I noticed that it was dark and there was lights similar to a concert. The upbeat music gave the church a lively feel. Because of the excitement my impression is that the worshipers were feeling a connection with God.
The music is very lively unlike the Catholic masses I have been to. There is a lot of prayer, but most of it is made up on the spot unlike many of the Catholic prayers during mass. Our pastor is in semi-formal dress during church but outside of church he dresses like anyone else. That symbolizes that we don’t need to be fancy to worship God. He doesn’t care about our material possessions, he cares that we are trying to get closer to him.
They had many different decorations, statues, colors, and lots of different eye-catching things. I think that having too much of that can take away the point of the entire process, and that it can distract people from focusing on what they came there to do.
Something that was unappealing to me about the service was that the Abbey Church is not very decorated and is much more simple in design than many of the churches that I have attended previously.
After my time in this course, I am more open minded to occasionally going to Mass. However I do not think I will ever be able to completely commit to church. I believe that I will find more peace of mind and a calmed spirit from a walk in the woods or through relationships with friends and family than going to church. On the other hand, I now place more worth in going to church as a way to reconnect with the sacraments as symbols and rituals.
It is easy to get distracted in a Catholic church because there is so much more to look at, stained glass windows and all the paintings and designs draw me away from what is going on in the front of church. The plain white walls and few designs of my Protestant church help me to better listen to the sermon instead of my attention wandering to what is around me. I also like that the pastor doesn’t wear the traditional garments. I see that as him becoming more like the congregation and not talking down to us.
As a non-Catholic attending a Catholic institution, I have had the privilege of becoming more acquainted with the Catholic faith and I would like to think that I’m not completely incompetent when it comes to some of the traditions that the church holds. However, when I was in the service and trying to participate respectfully, I felt very much out of the loop if only because I could not follow along with the responses or any of those things, which I found to be frustrating.