Not far from where I live there is a pretty little blue and white church called St. Raphael’s Old Catholic Church. I didn’t really notice this lovely church until I read an article about it in the local newspaper a couple of years ago. Since reading that piece I have passed the little church many times, and as my relationship with Roman Catholicism began to take on a more disaffected tone, I thought more and more about attending Mass at St. Raphael’s.
From that newspaper story and from research online, I learned that the Old Catholic Church (OCC) was inclusive and non-judgmental, but still Catholic in its fundamental theology and in its liturgy. These qualities are certainly a draw for me. Yet I could not seem to make the move; in fact, I couldn’t even step through the door of the little church.
I am not sure about other denominations, but Roman Catholics are funny people when it comes to loyalty to their Church. I have been angry with my Church on so many occasions over its intransigent stance on issues like homosexuality, clerical celibacy, the ordination of women, and contraception.
I have been frustrated by rigid adherence to doctrine that simply does not make sense to the modern mind. But I could not turn my back on the Church of my baptism. I have spoken with and read about other Roman Catholics, more disaffected than I, who also could not see themselves crossing over to the OCC, even if they had stopped attending their own church. One blogger who had just written about his experience attending a beautiful Christmas Mass at an Old Catholic church in Prague told me that he would somehow rather be a “schism of one” than join the OCC.
Perhaps it was my writer’s curiosity that overcame my reluctance, but about a month ago I finally made myself attend the Wednesday 8:30 am Mass at St. Raphael’s. I have attended twice more since then.
The experience was strange in several ways. First, unlike the Roman Catholic churches to which I have become accustomed, the small church is so jam-packed with iconography it looks like an ancient widow’s living room. Second, there were seven people at the Mass, including four priests and an altar server; this number actually decreased in my subsequent visits.
In the Roman Catholic parish where I sometimes attended weekday Mass, there were often 30-50 people in the congregation, including children from the attached parochial school. I am told, however, that St. Raphael’s is full on Sunday mornings; perhaps if I attend Sunday Mass I will get more of a sense of the parish community. Third, I was not accustomed to the liturgy of the Old Catholic Mass.
The priest celebrates with his back to the congregation, there are no readings from Scripture and no homily, and Holy Communion is distributed in the pre-Vatican II manner with recipients kneeling at a communion rail and taking the host, which is dipped in wine, directly onto their tongues. The liturgical prayers and the order of standing, kneeling, and sitting are all different from what is standard in Roman Catholicism.
After my first Mass at St. Raphael’s I had a long chat with Rev. Gérard LaPlante, Bishop of the Old Catholic Church of BC, in the vestibule of the little church. Father Gérard (he told me just to call him Father), who wears a plain brown cassock to Mass, is a friendly, talkative, down-to-earth French-Canadian in his late sixties.
In our conversation he reiterated to me what I had already read about this church and other Old Catholic churches: that they welcome all the faithful regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, or degree of adherence to Catholic doctrine on contraception, the role of women in the Church, common-law relationships, and married clergy. St. Raphael’s also welcomes people from other denominations and from all ethnicities. I was certainly warmly received.
On my second visit, that day’s celebrant, Father Martin Lotho, approached me before Mass and asked if there was anyone who had passed away that I wanted particularly to pray for. My late father’s name was then included in the prayer for the departed that was said during the liturgy.
The Old Catholic Church is a Christian denomination that split from Roman Catholicism in the eighteenth century over the issue of papal authority. There are Old Catholic churches in Canada and the United States, as well as in Europe, but they are not many and their congregations appear to be small. The OCC of BC has another parish in Surrey and two parishes in Quebec; Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Redmond, Washington is also an OCC of BC parish. The Community Catholic Church of Canada, formerly the Old Catholic Church of Canada, is not affiliated with the OCC of BC.
I am not certain that I will become a full-fledged member of this parish. Before I make a decision I need to attend Mass — and especially Sunday Mass — a few more times. I would also like to talk with the priests some more and meet some of the other parishioners. It is important for me to be able to put aside my initial feelings of strangeness and to experience fully the embrace of this community.
I am a bit of a quiet activist, so if I do become an Old Catholic I will likely try to encourage the church to reach out more actively to disaffected Roman Catholics like me. But whatever happens, I am glad to know that this little church that welcomes everyone unconditionally and that is a part of my neighbourhood offers a place of refuge to those who may not feel truly welcomed in their own church.
All photos included with permission of the photographer, Susan Mogan, © All Rights Reserved.
“Old Catholic Church Exterior”
“New Catholic Church, Altar and Pews”
“New Catholic Church, Stained Glass and Artifacts”
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