I had the privilege of visiting my first Catholic church on one of their busiest days of the year – Ash Wednesday. I was stoked to experience Ash Wednesday for the first time, so I grabbed two of my Catholic friends and had them take me to one of the most beautiful churches in Philadelphia. As we walked in, I was blown away by how ornate and intricate the building was. I have visited Catholic churches in other countries before, but never in a setting where I was participating in the service.
As we sat down in our pew, I nervously snapped some photos – the formality of a space like this was really intimidating. The service began, and I was amazed at the amount of rich tradition built into everything they did. There were recitations and motions everyone knew how to do because of their experience in the Catholic church. It was actually an incredible image of unity under this single belief. People of all backgrounds and ages went through the traditions of a Catholic service together.
Parts of the building were used that I hadn’t ever seen in my Protestant background: like a small raised pulpit that looked a lot like a gazebo from which the priest preached. The service involved multiple people who did not seem to be ordained taking the pulpit, which reminded me a lot of the Mormon services I had attended and attested even more to the communal aspect of the service.
People lined up in pairs down the nave of the church as they prepared to receive the blessed ashes from Ash Wednesday. I was almost giddy to get mine and to represent physically this time of remembering Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. I did, however, get a lot of weird looks and questions at the Protestant Bible study I went to afterward.
The traditionalism of the Catholic church is something I’ve always been skeptical about. It’s been my concern that the only focus is tradition and not on the teachings of the Bible, and while there are Catholic (and other religions) churches that do this, I was really encouraged to see how these traditions were a comfort and a way of connecting to God for many of the people there.