“Why do Catholic believers pray to Mary?” This was just one of the questions that we came up with as we evaluated the weekend whilst sitting in the Taverne restaurant on a boulevard at Port Louise in Brussels. It had been a busy weekend. Within 48 hours we had visited a Catholic bible study and prayer time, a service at the Antwerp International Protestant Church where we heard a testimony from a lady working to free prostitutes from human trafficking, a meeting with youth in Zaamslag to plan the next MeetPoint and a Christmas carol service at the Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Brussels.
At the restaurant table our conversation diverged into many questions and gave us food for thought about worship styles and even the concept of denominations.
'De Grijze Kat' or 'The Grey Cat'' is a Catholic group doing community work in Antwerp as well as meeting together for times of fellowship. We joined them for their weekly bible study and dinner. None of interns have a Roman Catholic background, so this was probably the most thought provoking group we visited. I realised that I was perfectly aware of Catholic traditions such as, crossing oneself when entering or leaving the worship area, using rosary beads and saying Hail Mary's. However, I had no idea why they performed such rituals and where these traditions stemmed from.
We discussed our opinions about the various experiences, covering a wide array of topics including whether or not it was moral to pray to Mary, and if salvation is achieved through faith alone or if faith must be supplemented with works. Furthermore, I became aware that I had lots of questions. Why do they say the Hail Mary ten times? Why is the Lord's prayer cut short? Why do they pray to Saints? Questions we as Protestants couldn’t answer.
Within our group our standpoints spanned from being strongly against Catholic traditions, to being apathetic towards their ways, to being indifferent about denominations as they all worship the same God. I personally realised that I should not judge Catholic traditions until I understand why they do them, and only then when I grasp their Theological perspective can I truly decide my own. Thus we think it would be beneficial to learn more about Catholicism as this will help us build bridges to the Catholic Community.
A naive and stereotypical view of Catholics would be that they are strict, cold and closed off. However, from my time there, I can say they were very kind-hearted, warm and hospitable. It was evident that everyone was unconditionally welcome, as I sat opposite Syrian refugees at the dinner table. Furthermore, Catholicism certainly doesn't prevent its followers from enjoying themselves as the evening unfolded into a sing-a-long, resulting in me dancing with an 81 year old man to a rousing chorus of 'My Bonnie lies over the Ocean'.
The two Protestant services felt more familiar to me and I was thrilled to finally attend a traditional carol service in Brussels, a custom in N.I. that I was most certainly missing. Additionally, much to my delight, we were provided with some homely festive treats such as shortbread and mulled wine after the service. Having been in Anglican and Evangelical churches before I'm accustomed to their ways however I realised that I’m rarely in a Catholic environment.
Don't get me wrong, I don’t have any resentment towards Catholicism I simply know very little about their practices. However, what I do know is that every person in each of these churches was seeking the same God. Thus whilst I find denominational differences interesting it is not a viable reason for conflict within the church. Ultimately the church is one body, that of Christ, and whilst we all do different things, Christ is at the head, and that is the most important thing.