Sunday, June 8, 2014

Your People Are My People; Your God is My God: A Catholic Convert Reflects on His Protestant Ancestors

Last Friday, I attended an appreciation dinner sponsored by Christ the King Church, my local parish, given as a way of saying thank you to the parish's many volunteers.  Father Bob led us in the Catholic grace before we sat down to eat our dinners.

Bless us O Lord,
And these thy gifts which we are about to receive
From Thy Bounty
Though Christ Our Lord
I have come to love this brief table prayer, said daily by millions of Catholics all over the world.  Those of us who say it are acknowledging our dependence on God and our gratitude for all the blessings of life, including the food we eat.

And I find its brevity, its humility, its almost childlike simplicity strangely touching.  This little prayer is utterly refreshing to me compared to the long-winded Protestant table graces of my youth, with pastors going on and on and on as the fried chicken got cold in front of us.  If anyone wants to know what these Protestant prayers are like, they should see the movie August: Osage County. Chris Cooper's character gives a lengthy mealtime grace, delivered in the sweltering heat of an Oklahoma farm house, that is a pretty good approximation of the real thing.

This prayer forms part of our Catholic heritage--my  Catholic heritage. As I say it, I feel a kinship with all the American Catholics over the centuries who clung to their faith in spite of scorn and prejudice from  the predominant American culture.  The Irish immigrants of Boston, the Italians of New York, the Poles of Chicago, the German Catholics of Texas and the upper Midwest, the Hispanic immigrants of California--all these people are my people.  Their God is my God.

Sometimes when I reflect on my Catholic heritage--freely given to me when I came into the Church--I feel pity for my Protestant ancestors who gave up the power, the beauty and the glory of Catholicism--and for what?  To become Methodists? To become Presbyterians? To become Episcopalians? They threw their inheritance away for a crust of stale bread.

And I wonder sometimes, over the centuries that have passed since the Reformation, did any of my Protestant ancestors turn back to the Mother Faith?  Did some Fossey in ages past marry a Catholic French girl or an Irish-American girl and return to the Church?  Did one of the Andersons stumble upon the reality of Christ in the Eucharist and begin to weep as St. Elizabeth Ann Seton did more than 200 years ago on the coast of Italy?  Did even one of my Protestant ancestors ever wander into a Mass and be overcome by its beauty  as happened to Dorothy Day early in the last century?

Or am I the only one among all the generations of my Protestant ancestors stretching back to Henry VIII who turned back?  Did God call me alone of all my family to return to the fold? Of all my blood relatives who crossed the River Styx in error, am I the only one--through the wideness of God's mercy-- to mysteriously come floating back toward the abundance of life on the healing streams of the Tiber?

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