I am an adult convert to Catholicism, as is my wife. She entered the Church after we were married and knew even less about Catholicism than I did when I entered, which wasn’t much.
Because she knew nothing about the Church, every new thing has provoked wonder or befuddlement, or both. So, for example, when we started going to Mass together, we settled on a beautiful Church where the congregation received communion at a lovely altar rail. She had been to churches where people stood in line and received communion like a mechanical assembly line, so one day, after getting her blessing at the altar rail, she sat back down next to me in the pew and whispered, “That altar rail thing is a good idea. They should tell other churches about that.”
Sighing heavily, I told her that most Catholic churches used to have altar rails, but they tore them out. “Why?” she gasped with a puzzled expression on her face. “To make it more efficient I guess?” I said meekly. “But it doesn’t!” she replied insistently. My wife has no religious background, and she’s not at all what anyone would call “traddy” (she was a Goth-chick slam poet), but she always prioritizes people over process. She recognizes the work of stupid bureaucracy when she sees it, and I have found it is best not to try to explain why some bureaucrat would do something so obviously stupid; best just to leave it alone. So I just shook my head and whispered, “Yeah, well, it’s hard to explain.”
Ever since my wife entered the Church, she has has been filled with questions — things she thinks should have been covered in RCIA, but to her constant exasperation, weren’t.
So, for example, my wife wonders every year what to get our godchildren for holidays. “Why didn’t they cover this in RCIA?” she asks, clearly perturbed that something she thinks other “cradle” Catholics know all about was left out of her Catholic education. I don’t know what to tell her, because although I was given the honor of being godfather to a friend’s baby daughter years before I got married, it never occurred to me to ask whether I should get her a gift on holidays. I pray for my goddaughter all the time. But gifts? Was that supposed to be part of it? They never covered that in RCIA. It’s just not something that ever occurred to me. But my wife gets frustrated with this question every year.
Here’s one. Is chicken broth meat? I never asked this question because when I was a bachelor, I just opened a can of tuna and threw it on some mac and cheese. But my wife finds this — how to put this? — unacceptable. She thinks soup and some nice bread is a more sensible, civilized meal for Fridays during Lent. But making soup, as it turns out, sometimes involves chicken broth. (Who knew? I always just open a can.) So is chicken broth meat? She wants to be a good Catholic, but they didn’t cover this in RCIA!
Here’s another one. What are you supposed to do with the palms from Palm Sunday after you bring them home and find them on a book shelf several months later? She’s pretty sure you’re not supposed to just throw them in the trash, and there is a rumor that you’re supposed to burn them, but often they just won’t catch fire. And what would you do with the ashes? Why didn’t they cover this in RCIA?
And then there’s the whole business of the religious orders: Dominicans, Franciscans, Jesuits, Benedictines, sisters, nuns, convents, monasteries, and the rest. She is like a child learning the names of all those wonderful dinosaurs. But instead of “This is a tricerotops!” she points and says: “Wait, wait, okay, that’s a Dominican, right?”
She distinguishes “habit priests” from “non-habit priests” — not because she dislikes the non-habit ones, it’s just the thing she notices. She is pleased that she can now identify the Dominican habit, so if she sees a priest in street clothes, and I say, “He’s a Dominican,” she gets perturbed. “But Dominicans are habit priests, right?” “Yes,” I explain, but there are provinces of Dominicans where they don’t always wear the habit or clericals. They prefer pink button-down oxford shirts and loafers. “They didn’t explain that in RCIA,” she says exasperatedly.
How about shoes, she wants to know. Can you wear open toe sandals to Mass? Some women say “Sure!” but others are aghast. So what is it? Heels? Flats? Dress sandals? She just wants to know. But there was nothing about it in RCIA.
My wife has been startled to find that priests are real people who do things like eat and go to movies. So let’s say you invite a priest for dinner. What are you supposed to serve? Can you offer him an adult beverage? Like many other people in our culture, my wife had mistaken Catholic priests for a certain kind of Protestant. Priests can drink wine. That’s pretty much an essential (sorry, “accidental”) part of their job. But can you serve priests tacos? Or a pizza? Or must you serve a nicely laid-out dish of chicken and peas or some beef bourguignon? They never explained this in RCIA.
She has a host of other questions, enough to keep her continually exasperated. Why don’t they have people practice taking communion on the tongue, both kneeling and standing, so that it’s not so clumsy the first time you do it? Why does no one tell you that you should take off your glasses before the priest sprinkles you with water? How do you find a good Mass in a nice Church when you’re out of town? And why it is so hard? Why are so many Catholic churches so ugly and the music so terrible?
Yeah, well, it’s hard to explain. Probably why they don’t cover it in RCIA.
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