When I was a boy in the Northwestern Kansas small town of Colby (population 6,000), we lived near the Catholic Church. I was raised in a Protestant church (a congregation that was part of the Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ. Interestingly, the Christian Churches take the Lord’s supper every Sunday. One of my earliest memories of sitting in church with my parents is the smell of grape juice on my dad and mom’s breath after they took communion.).
When we were 9 or 10 years old, the neighbor boys and my brother and I would occasionally ride our bikes around the sidewalks of the Catholic Church, just a couple blocks from my home. The sidewalks looped the church and meandered through a lovely flower garden behind the building. We got some great games of bike tag going on those church sidewalks.
One day the priest was outside the church building. Suddenly he stepped onto the sidewalk in front of our bikes, stopping us. Speaking sternly he said, “Boys, don’t be riding so wildly on these church sidewalks. Have you no respect? You get on home now.” He was dressed in black pants, a long-sleeved black shirt and a white clerical collar. I’d put him at about 115 years old. (He was probably no more than 50, if even that.)
We didn’t say a word, Whipping our bikes around, we high-tailed it for home. Later that night I told my mom what happened. Me even telling her scared her — I never was sure why, and still couldn’t tell you. Still, she said to never go back there again and to “never, ever go inside the Catholic church building.”
She said the Catholics were very good people with a strong faith and I needed to respect them. But I was not to go into the church building — ever.
“Okay?” she said.
“Okay,” I answered.
Well, guess what happened? Yep, you’re already ahead of me. Not long after that summer day when my mom said to never enter the Catholic Church building, my neighbor friend and I rode back to the Catholic Church. Discussing among ourselves, we decided to hide our bikes and try to go into the building, the very thing I was forbidden to do.
My friend said he was sure it was not against the law to enter a church building. Throwing caution to the wind, and disregarding my mom’s warning, we circled the block around the building a couple of time, staging our entrance. Since I already was the most curious kid on the planet, I am sure that once we decided to go into the church building, I was all in.
After one final circle around the block, we got off our bikes and hid them behind a cluster of bushes near the front of the building. Tip-toeing in our black sneakers up to the entrance, we pulled on the front door. It opened. We looked at each other, took a big breath and walked in. Passing a white, marble font with water in the basin just inside the door, we moved into the foyer.
As we passed the Holy Water, which I never had seen before, my friend started to chicken out, even though he had pushed me to go for it. “Oh come on,” I insisted. I pushed on, walking into the main auditorium. He followed right on my heels. To one side was a crucifix. It was ceramic and was encased in a big frame bolted to the wall. There were nails in Jesus’ hands and feet. Red paint showed blood oozing from the wounds in his hands and feet.
Never had I seen anything like this.
Near the ceramic crucifix was a confessional. It had 3 doors. I had no idea what it was. I did have a Catholic friend who once told me he didn’t like going to confession but that his mom made him go.
“What do you say?” I asked.
“I tell the priest I said some bad words and didn’t clean my room the way I am supposed to.”
While we stood there in the dark auditorium looking at the confessional — this strange little wooden room with 3 doors — suddenly a door on the other side of the auditorium opened and in stepped a nun attired in her full, traditional Habit. She caught our gaze. We froze for a second or two before doing a 180 and bolting for the door. Flinging open the door, we raced to where our bikes were lying behind the bushes. Mounting them like race horses pawing the ground, eager to start a race, we sped off, riding as fast as we could ride.
To the best of knowledge, I never told my mom about what happened. I had of course told her about my encounter with the priest outside the church building, but I never told her about the one inside the building. I can only imagine what she might have said. I think I would probably have been going to her confessional for a long time.
Of course, I could never have known back then that I would grow up to one day be a campus pastor at the University of Illinois. Or that one of my favorite places to read and pray for several years would be the beautiful, cavernous St. John’s Catholic Chapel on the west side of campus.
Some years back there was a 5-foot by 7-foot framed copy of the Apostles’ Creed hanging on the wall of the chapel. On many occasions (usually late in the afternoon) I entered St. John’s, walked to the front of the chapel and slipped into the second pew from the front. Pulling down the kneeler attached to the pew in front of where I was sitting, I knelt and prayed the creed 3 or 4 times. Then I would just relax and sit quietly for 10 or 15 minutes. Often I was the only one in the chapel.
It was balm to my soul. I am sure my mom would have approved.