As I have swapped stories with other converts over the years, certain themes come up again and again. For many, going to the first Mass is a rather clandestine affair. Disguised in Groucho Marx glasses, we clutch our super-sized Bibles under our trench coats, and lurk in the shadows to be sure no one we know sees us going in.
Sneakin’ a Peak
When the coast is clear, we scuttle across and slip into the very last pew, sinking a little lower each time a priest or parishioner glances in our direction. This peculiar behavior might brand us “backsliders,” or simply “sliders” (if not by our pewmates, for sure by friends and relatives once they find out where we spent that particular Sunday morning).
Even those who summon up the courage to walk in as though they were regulars soon give themselves away, if you know what to look for. Sure, there’s the “Our Father Express,” where all the Protestants keep on going when everyone else stops at “… deliver us from evil.” However, there are other, subtler signs as well. Here are fifteen of them.
• They might be “sliders” if… they cut a wide berth at the baptismal font, and trip over or run into whoever is genuflecting toward the tabernacle on the way into the pew.
• They might be “sliders” if… they sing hymns like “Amazing Grace” and “Joyful, Joyful” with gusto, in three-part harmony, but clam up for the “Gloria.”
• They might be “sliders” if… they carry Bibles larger than the lectionary, but can lip sync the readings without ever looking down.
• They might be “sliders” if… their Bibles open magically to the right page every time the priest mentions a New Testament reference… But they get a “deer in the headlights” expression if he mentions Tobit or Maccabees.
• They might be “sliders” if… they sit poised on the edge of the pew, nails splintering the wood, ready to jump up or drop at the first hint of movement from the crowd.
• They might be “sliders” if… they look askance at the statuary, muttering a suspicious, “Who’s that?” at the crucifix.
• They might be “sliders” if… the priest chants in Latin, and they ask what time the English service starts.
• They might be “sliders” if… they jump as though a spider crawled into their shorts when incense wafts or water is sprinkled their way.
• They might be “sliders” if… they snort, cough, or faint at the mention of Jesus’s mother or any of the saints.
• They might be “sliders” if… they doze off during the homily and, expecting a much longer sermon, don’t wake up until someone hits them with an offering basket.
• They might be “sliders” if… when it’s time for the Eucharist they panic, make a wrong turn, and lead their entire row up into the choir loft.
• They might be “sliders” if… they quote extensively from and appear to be on a first-name basis with “Scott,” “Karl,” and “Steve.”
• They might be “sliders” if… they slip into a confessional and whisper a nervous, “Um… hello. Anybody in there?”
• They might be “sliders” if… the priest is still in the confessional six hours later, unable to break the litany of questions long enough to make an appointment.
• They might be “sliders” if… at coffee hour, they appear to be under the impression that the “Immaculate Conception” is another name for NFP, which they also refer to as the “rhythm method.”
If you happen to spot a surreptitious “backslider,” pretend not to notice when she barrels through the “Our Father.” If he seems lost, tip your missalette or hymnal a bit, very casually, so he can read the page number and catch up. Above all, say a little prayer for the poor soul. These brothers and sisters in the Lord are almost certainly experiencing spiritual “culture shock,” and struggling to hear the truth over the inner clamor of prejudice and misperception.
At the sign of peace, once they have relaxed a bit, introduce yourself and let them know how glad you are they came. Offer to introduce the visitors to the priest, or invite them to join you for coffee and donuts after Mass. As the writer of Hebrews points out, “Show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have entertained angels unawares” (Heb 13:2).
Who knows? Someday you might find that by welcoming one more “crazy convert” into the fold, you made all of heaven rejoice.
Raised in the evangelical Protestant tradition, Heidi Saxton was confirmed Catholic in 1993. She is the author of With Mary in Prayer (Loyola) and is a graduate student (theology) at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan. You may contact Heidi at firstname.lastname@example.org .