I was raised a Congregationalist - my family went to Beneficent Congregational Church in downtown Providence, RI, a twenty minute drive from our suburban home in Warwick. I had many friends who were Catholic, and their church was right in our neighborhood. We walked past Norwood Catholic Church on the way home from school, and one day a week my Catholic friends would wave goodbye to me as they donned their lace mantillas and headed into catechism. Catechism! The word alone seemed so exotic, so mysterious, compared to my cubed white bread Welch's grape juice Sunday School. And the fact that it took place on a school day afternoon made it all the more intriguing.
So of course I said, Yes! Sure! when my best friend Betty invited me to join her catechism class one afternoon (I had officially joined my church the year before when I had turned 13, and was now able to take communion there, but I was curious about the rituals of the Catholic religion). The taboo topic of swear words came up during the catechism class, and I'll never forget that the teacher explained the origins of The F Word. "When someone committed adultery in colonial times," he told us matter of factly, "they were put in stocks with the letters F. U. C. K. written above their heads: For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge." Wow! We never had these conversations in our Sunday School! This was great! So, Yes! Of course I agreed to go away with Betty and the class for a weekend retreat at a local monastery!
We gathered together at the monastery on Friday night - all of us teenagers, a group of nuns, priests, and a few theology students from Brown University - and we sat in a big circle and prayed and sang hymns. Saturday was an all day workshop. I remember a filmstrip of pictures of ants teaming out of anthills and moving in long deliberate lines over bare ground, and the narrator spouting some message about non-catholics being no different than these ants, soulless creatures, doomed to doing the same things over and over with no meaning or purpose, and no chance of salvation. I remember thinking, "Well, jeeez, those ants look pretty purposeful to me..."
But I kept still. I was there to learn. Saturday night, after dinner, we had another session of prayers and hymn singing before heading to bed. Some of the kids kept sneaking out of their rooms, but there were nuns patrolling the halls and they barked everyone back to their bunks. I laid still in my bed and listened to all the commotion, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Sunday morning at breakfast we were told that the crowning culmination of the weekend would be the communion service. We were all feeling quite tired and jazzed from the sleepless night, but we had bonded after spending the last 36 hours together, and I looked forward to the communion service with excitement! No white bread and grape juice, here. There would be wine! And the wafer! Betty and I walked into the sanctuary side by side. One of the priests standing at the entrance nodded at Betty approvingly and motioned her forward to the front row. He turned back to me with a stern expression and put up his hand in a STOP sign. "You're not Catholic," he said. "No," I said, tentatively, halting. "I'm Protestant."
"Well, you cannot sit up front, and you cannot partake of communion," he said with finality. I'd kept quiet and minded my manners the entire weekend, but now I felt a hot flush rise to my cheeks as I protested, indignant. "But I take communion in my church! I have taken the special classes and I officially joined the church last spring when I was 13! Why can't I take communion here?"
The priest closed his eyes and smiled. "Listen," he said. "I'll explain it to you as simply as I can. When a Protestant takes communion, it's as if he opens a box and finds inside an ordinary stone. When a Catholic takes communion, he opens that very same box, but finds inside a glittering diamond." The priest then turned on his heel and walked briskly up the aisle, and I stared open mouthed at his back and watched his robe drag ceremoniously behind him. I was tired, I was homesick, I was hurt, and I felt so humiliated. I began to cry. Suddenly an arm went around my shoulders and I looked up, sniffing, into a handsome face. One of the theology students from Brown had been behind me in line and had heard my exchange with the priest. He hugged my shoulder tight and leaned over and whispered, "That guy's an asshole! Come sit with me." So this good-looking, smart, funny, caring, Catholic young man sat with his arm protectively around 14 year old Protestant me throughout the entire service. I could've died and gone to heaven. Now that's what I call communion!