I am a lapsed Catholic. I grew up in the Church of John XXIII and John Paul II. Many paths to God; ecumenism; guitar Masses.* It was a strange experience: traditions that my parents grew up with (like the Latin Mass and the altar at the back of the church) were gone forever, but there was still this great weight of centuries of culture on top of everything.
I got my throat blessed every St. Blaise’s Day to ward off choking, and my grandmother always put out two platters of food for Easter brunch: one was ordinary, and the other had been blessed with holy water and incense. I went to church on all of the Holy Days of Obligation. I did the Stations of the Cross once a year. I wore a scapular for years. There are pictures of me in a white dress and veil on the day of my First Holy Communion, my grandfather standing beside me bursting with pride.
Religion was something you dressed up for. You went out of the house and had it done to you by a priest or a nun or a lay Eucharistic minister. It was an identity and a culture–a strong one, and after Vatican II an extremely mutable one, but not a personal practice. You didn’t have to understand everything; it was enough to be part of the group and to participate. To come to Holy Communion with an unblemished soul. To kneel, sit, stand, and make the sign of the Cross. To recite the Creed and rejoice in the love of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
I’m not trying at all to make it sound empty. It was for a long time extremely fulfilling to me. There is a comfort in ritual: God, and the priests and nuns, are there holding up the institution whether you are mentally up for it that day or not. You can go to church and get lost in it. It is formalized and standardized in order to create a group experience that is meaningful for everyone, even those who aren’t religious scholars or who are dealing with a personal crisis. The Church is always there, and the Mass is always the same.
*Not all change is good.