I stood at the edge of the road helping the seminary students give more than 130 gallons of water in small plastic bags to the flood of people passing by our seminary gate heading towards the Roman Catholic (RC) cathedral in Antipolo city on Thursday evening. Usually the road outside the main gate is constantly occupied with traffic congestion every day. But that evening was different. The road was packed like a river flooded with people. The glows of the different street lights flashed on them like torch lights on a colony of ants that have just crawled out of nowhere at night making their way towards scraps of food left under the dining table after an evening meal. At the side of the road were people selling food, soft drinks, local Filipino snacks and many other goodies. I watched in admiration as people of all sizes and age groups proudly marched up the hill outside the Asia Pacific Nazarene Theological Seminary heading towards Antipolo.
I looked over and saw some Christian friends standing around me watching what was happening. I turned to one of them whom I figured out to be an assistant pastor of a local church in our city. “Kuya (brother),” I chatted excitedly, “it’s wonderful to know that the huge number of people we see walking by are Christians.” Yes but…mmm..,” he muttered with a grin on his cheek, “They are not like us. Their ways are totally different from us.” Without a word, I turned around and saw another familiar person standing a meter away towards my right. I moved towards him and chuckled to gain his attention, “Sir, look at all these people. They are Christians. If this crowd represents another religion than Christianity, I think this country will not be free like what we have now. I wonder if we would have peace or not in this country? I wonder if we Christians will be able to proudly call ourselves as Christians. Thank God we are at least safe here from violence caused as a result of religious wars.” The person stood with hands folded and simply nodded his head with a weak grin on his face as if my statement was true but not fascinating enough to make him fully appreciate it. I stood there thinking about what I have said and the responses I have received. Then I moved back out onto the road to help the students.
Around 8:30 PM, our water supply ran out so we had to stop and retreat back to our own dormitories. Since we did not feel like eating dinner earlier, we felt hungry so my wife quickly prepared a light meal which we ate hungrily.
It is towards the end of March and in some countries it is usually the start of the spring season. But in Manila spring time is no different than summer. The nights are sometimes as warm as the daytime. The air from the fan blowing at high speed facing me felt like the warm breeze sweeping down the rugged hills rushing across the dry Markham plains of PNG. Sweat dripping down my back and armpits made me unable to resist the urge of a quick shower before I get on my bed to get a good night sleep. Then I remembered the pictures I had taken on my mobile phone, so I quickly looked at some good ones and posted them on my Facebook timeline. Instead of sleeping I sat on the bed leaning back against the white concrete wall and pondered with closed eyes about what I have just observed. What did I see? Did it mean anything to me? Was that just another RC religious practice? What can I as a protestant Christian glean from this practice?
- The RC’s are Christians.
I thought about the response my pastor friend had given me. I am saddened about the fact that the response he gave is the reality of what a lot of Protestant Christians think of the RC’s. Many think the RC’s are not Christians. Many times when people meet me on the road, at the market or in shops and restaurants, they would ask me the same questions. “What country are you from? Are you a missionary?” I would reply, “No, I’m a seminary student.” Oh OK! What church? Catholic or Christian?” My response as always is, “I am both! I am a Christian and a Catholic.” That answer makes them even more confused because to many being a Christian is different from a (Roman) Catholic. The reason why I say that I am both is because “being a Catholic is different from being a Roman Catholic.” All true believers of Christ are first, members of the Catholic Church; the universal Church of Christ scattered around the world. Secondly, they choose to be part of a worshiping community under a denomination which RC is one of them.
Many of the Protestants today see the RC’s as another religious group. There are theological and practical reasons why we see ourselves different from each other. These theological differences shape the way we identify ourselves as Christians. And we can argue with each other about that for years. Yet the fact is we are both Christians. “Unity does not have to be uniformity.” We tend to think we are holier and righteous than them, and they need to learn from us. We think we are the real Christians. But there are few facts we can learn and appreciate about RC.
2. Christianity can no longer be the biggest religion in the word without RC’s.
There are many denominations and sects under Christianity. The RC is possibly the biggest Christian denomination with a huge number of followers that adds up the total number of Christians around the world making Christianity the biggest religion with approximately more than 32 % of the world’s population. Take away almost 1.2 billion RC’s and Christianity is no longer the biggest religion in the world. The next time you see a Roman Catholic brother or sister, be grateful that he or she is one of those that make your number bigger than other religions.
Does quantity matter? Yes! Where there is a majority of people who follow a certain religion, their religious culture often dominates the lives of the minority groups. Where there are many Muslims, the state or country in which they live becomes an Islamic state or nation. It is the same with Hinduism in India and Buddhism in Myanmar. Philippines and some other nations are branded as a Christian nations because of the number of Christians living in the country. Philippines in particular is not branded a Christian nation because of the number of protestant churches but because of the huge number of RC’s and their influence over the cultural practices of the people.
3. The RC’s contribute a lot to social service delivery.
Despite our critic of the theology of salvation by works, protestant Christians in many parts of Asia should have a sense of respect and gratitude towards RC because their early missionaries paved the way to spread Christianity into our primitive societies. They set up schools, hospitals and worked with the colonial governments to develop our societies. Today they own some of the best higher learning institutions in the Philippines and other neighboring countries. Many of their missionaries sacrificed their lives travelling to unknown dangerous territories, walked into remote jungles and rugged mountain terrains to establish contact with the local people. They lived with them and established mission stations that began pioneering the spread of Christianity in our countries. That is something that should not be debated but acknowledged by other denominations. If you are a protestant Christian, did your denomination arrive before the RC missionaries or after them? Would it be much easier or difficult for your denomination to start its pioneer work if the RC’s had not spread the Christian influence? Will your missionaries be welcomed? I think of the history of Christianity in my country and feel that we owe a lot of gratitude towards the early missionaries of the RC.
4. The RC’s use a lot of meaningful religious symbols.
I am not an expert in Roman Catholicism and do not know much about all the details of the RC religious rituals and the symbols used. But lately as a seminary student in the Wesleyan evangelical tradition, I began to learn a lot about the use of symbols in Christian worship and discovered some very important things about the liturgies of the RC and other mainline evangelical churches. I am amazed at how some of the symbols used in their worship liturgies convey a rich sacred meaning that enhances ones faith when he or she understands them and uses them in the proper way. Though we as Protestants do not agree theologically on the use of all their religious symbols, there is a great deal of deep religious thought to glean from some of their liturgical practices.
Maybe at this contemporary age, we may have wandered too quick and too far down the road turning our worship services into gospel music concerts. We have thrown away the use of our past liturgies that included objects that are symbols of deep spiritual meanings. We have replaced religious events during Christmas and Easter with picnics, Christmas parties at the poolside, ball games and movies that aim to entertain people to avoid the fear of losing them. More time, money and effort is spent in organizing these activities and less or no time and concentration is given to events that help us reflect on the significance of Easter and Christmas.
A few of my seminary professors and students decided to join the walk with the pilgrims. After the walk I heard testimonies of how students were overwhelmed by the experience of walking to remember a significant event that changed the cause of human history. I wonder what you have planned to do in your worship services during the Easter weekend to give you a deeper meaning of this religious festive season. Maybe we need to pause and learn something from the RC’s.
5. The RC’s follow the Christian calendar.
Many protestant churches do not follow the annual Christian calendar and sometimes are not prepared as they move towards the Christmas and Easter festive seasons. The RC’s and a few protestant denominations are faithful in following the Christian calendar. Before the Easter season, they begin their preparation at the beginning of the Lenten season; about 40 days before the Easter week. While they prepare to celebrate the Easter season, most of the Protestants don’t think about it until the week of Palm Sunday or the Easter weekend.
What did your local church do to prepare you for this Easter season?
What church activity are you involved in to make this festive season a memorable experience in your spiritual life?
6. The RC’s are devoted to their religious practices.
I admire the RC’s when it comes to their devotion to their religious festivals. I understand that some people have negative opinions regarding their salvation and faith which I am not in a position to judge. Regardless of who they are, (not all but) most of them would be willing to set time aside from their busy schedules during Christmas and Easter seasons just to attend mass or participate in a religious event. I assume it is not the same with some Protestants who claim to know the truth and are set free from the bondage of religion.
You may argue that you don’t have to be committed to your denominational practices to be a Christian. But remember, that being a Christian is part of being a member of a community of believers. You can be a member of a denomination and not be a Christian. But you cannot be a Christian without being a part of a community of believers in faith and practice. We are identified by whom who associate with and how we behave. You are a foreigner if you don’t act, think and talk in some ways like the community you belong. In my human limitations I do have doubts about some people who profess to be saved and sanctified but are arrogant and reluctant to be devoted in their practice that reveals their religious devotion. They are always very busy and don’t have time for religious activities. Yet they do make time available to go to cinemas, a weekend picnic near the beach or to take a vacation. They don’t have one or two hours for a religious activity but they do have a whole day, a weekend or a week for a picnic or a vacation.
On one hand the religious activities make us feel part of a worshiping community. On the other hand, the religious activities are not meant to be taken as an end to themselves or as means of salvation but as different”means of grace” that enriches our spiritual experiences that connect us to God. They are our human responses to God’s doing in our lives as part of the church.
Though some RC’s go through their religious motion in worship without really understanding the real meaning of what they are doing, the point is that they are committed to doing it. In contrast, some Protestants come to worship expecting to be entertained by the worship team. They complain about every detail of worship. They complain about the songs, how the music is played, the sermon, how the other person dresses, whether they are being welcomed in church or not, how the church is organized and the list of complains goes on and on.
Many years ago while attending an RC primary school and vocational training school, I played music in their liturgy and joined them in some of their religious activities. I never understood everything they did. But I saw that they were very devoted and took their mass seriously. The RC’s attend their mass, perform what they are told to do and leave when the mass is over. They don’t have time to complain about the mass or the administration of the church. That is the role of the priest and his assistants. Their focus is to worship.
It is not that our complaints about our worship services and church administration are bad. In fact we need to look for different ways to make our worship services better to enhance our worship experiences with God. But too often we attend services to judge and forget that we go to church as a community gathered to worship God. Often our judgmental attitudes hinder us from an open humble submission as we unite in our participation of worship. For the RC, it is not the sweet songs, or the style of music that enhances their religious experience but their participation in what others assume to be a boring liturgical mass that satisfies them. We may be too sophisticated with our worship styles while they worship in a simple liturgical format. But they use religious symbols that conveys sacred meanings that speak deeper and stronger than the sound of a noisy rock band on a Sunday worship service.
What are some things you can learn from the Roman Catholics devotion to their religious faith that can challenge your commitment to your own church?
I hope you have learned something from them. Here are the six main points to appreciate about the RC’s.
- The RC’s are your Christian brothers and sisters. (though they may not be like you).
- The RC’s make you the biggest religion in the world.
- The RC’s contribute a lot to social service delivery.
- The RC’s use a lot of meaningful religious symbols
- The RC’s follow a Christian calendar
- The RC’s are devoted to their denominational practice.
Don’t miss the blessing of this Easter season. Observe what other Christians are doing and try to learn something good from them. Appreciate their uniqueness. You may not like everything they do. But try to see if you can learn a few things from them. By doing that you are helping yourself to “think outside your religious box” and do things differently. Remember, Christian worship does not always have to have a standard format like what you always do in your church. By learning something from other denominations, you can improve your church worship experience as well as your devotional life.
- P.S. – Please don’t forget to leave a comment below to help me improve this article.