I didn’t know Jimmy well, but his wife Sheila and I are long-time friends from way back in our very early 20s. Along with Laurie, Kim, CJ, Debbie and Jackie, we have gathered together over the past 30 years for weddings, births, deaths and gossip sessions over dinner. We all feel relatively young in our 50s.
So it was a shock that one of our husbands would die suddenly. We gathered together in support of our friend, to participate in Jimmy’s “celebration of life” funeral mass.
Sitting on a back row in the Catholic Church were an Episcopal, United Methodist and Baptist, clutching our programs for direction, uncertain of what was to come.
I found myself opening up to the strange rituals and visuals. Jesus still on the cross. Statuary in the sanctuary. Acolytes holding a large book from which the priest read. What appeared to be a tabernacle on a platform, which played a part in communion to come later.
When the priest said, “The peace of the Lord be with you,” we automatically said, “And also with you.” We quickly learned that the Catholic response is, “And with your spirit.” (Later, Sheila told me this is a new response instituted by now-retired Pope Benedict.) The music was more chanting than hymn-singing, with parts sung by a music leader and responses repeated by the congregation. I found comfort in the repetition of sacred words.
We passed the peace. Sang the Lord’s Prayer – though the traditional ending for Protestants came a bit later. Sat and stood and knelt.
Communion was so familiar, yet so different. Much more attention was paid to it than we do in the Protestant Church. The rituals and blessings were lengthy and involved several acolytes (interestingly, all girls!). In many Protestant churches, we are used to hearing that the Lord’s Table is open to all who are right with God, but in the Catholic Church, only Catholics are able to take communion. Before we entered the sanctuary, I had asked the priest if non-Catholics can come forward to receive a blessing. He said he alone could give us the blessing, but in the end, I kept my seat and listened to the soloist sing Ave Maria.
In his homily, the priest said, “When we have grief in our life, we are open to accepting comfort,” and “Jesus brings us into the presence of God in a way that even Moses did not enjoy.” I felt the Holy Spirit bringing comfort to all those who knew Jimmy well and were deeply grieved at his passing. I prayed that God would give Sheila and her teenage son Layne an extra measure of comfort as she celebrated the life of her husband with hundreds of family and friends in that Holy place.
And while it was very different, it was also familiar. Accepting different worship styles and communion rituals and rules comes more easily to me now than in the past. I credit the inclusive yet diverse entity of Memphis Theological Seminary for showing me, again and again, how big God is. Thanks be to God.