If you’re over 50, like me, you may have memories of the first fall school assignments to give a report of what you did or what you may have learned during your now-passed summer vacation. This is my report from this year.

One of my favorite things about still being a relatively new Christian is that there are seemingly endless opportunities to learn. Every time I feel like I have a handle on one aspect or another regarding Christianity, or that I have cornered the knowledge of a particular doctrine, something happens to challenge what I feel I know I know.

Allow me to share with you a recent trip I took to Italy, which included a visit to Rome, and see if you can see what I mean. Before I do, I want to start with a little color regarding how the whole trip came to be.

If you’ve read my blog before, you likely know that I was saved at the later age of 42 after a life of atheism.

When I was 32, I was a finance manager at a car dealership. One of my coworkers in the finance department, we’ll call him Bill (since that’s his name), was also an atheist.

We were never really close friends, and when the time came to leave the dealership, as so often happens in the car business, we didn’t stay in touch.

Fast forward fourteen years, I was nearing graduation from Colorado Christian University with a Bachelor’s degree in biblical studies. I didn’t want to go back into the car business, but it was difficult for a guy with 20+ years in the car business to find work anywhere else. I applied to one dealership where I got a job selling cars, and there was Bill, the used car manager of that same dealership.

As we began to get reacquainted, I quickly let him know that I had become a Christian. I believe the phrase I used back then was, “I started going to church.”

“You?” he reacted. “No F@*% way! I figured you were smarter than that.” After three years of questioning the validity of such an ‘absurd and unnecessary’ worldview, he too came to know the Lord. Unfortunately, and against all of my best efforts, it was as a Catholic.

Men plan

Fast forward once again to 2023. Bill and I are the best of friends and spend countless hours discussing theology, religion, the Bible, etc. We were both ready for a vacation and excitedly planned a trip to Israel. We were both to be baptized in the River Jordan (which would have been Bill’s first baptism); we were going to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, explore 2000-year-old ruins, and eat crazy amounts of street food. That is until the conflict with Gaza occurred, and our plans were cut short.

After six solid months of planning, mapping, reserving, and, dare I say, perfecting a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the holy land, we had two weeks to decide what else to do. You could be forgiven for not pitying the two of us as we very disappointedly and half-heartedly decided to go to Italy instead.

God laughs

We booked plane tickets to Rome and basically figured the rest out as we went. Now, the irony was not lost on me that we were going from (what I wanted) doing a complete end-run around all of the Catholic Church dogma and ritual in order to get Bill baptized and possibly even partake in communion, to instead (what Bill wanted) going straight into the heart of Catholic ground zero where none of this could happen because, as of yet, Bill hadn’t built up enough reward points in the Catholic Church to do either.

St. Peter’s Basilica
So, I wondered, to which of us was God teaching a lesson?

Italy was, in fact, quite beautiful. Few areas of the world could rival Venice or Tuscany. Ultimately, our travels led us back to Rome for the final three days of our trip before returning home.

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore
For the entire trip we were immersed in churches, basilicas, and palaces, as well as museums containing sculptures and paintings dating back anywhere from two or three centuries to as far back as twenty centuries.

My mind was racing back and forth through all of the dates in my memory; this was before the Reformation, this was just after the Reformation, and this probably happened just before the Great Schism. Sure, this is considered ‘Catholic’ now, but only by default because the Church was either Orthodox or non-Orthodox Christianity at the time. It wouldn’t be seen as (big C)”Catholic” until after the Reformation. And so on.

Check out Bill

After the first couple of days of casually observing and appreciating the architecture and artistry, concededly at arm’s length, I began to notice Bill. He was doing the sign of the cross with the holy water upon entering a church, genuflecting in front of the altar, lighting batter operated candles, and dropping coins in collection boxes. His priest would be proud, I thought to myself. But I, his best friend and non-denominational Christian mentor of the past eight years now, couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed about Catholicism being his religion of choice.

As we were enjoying a lunch of cicchetti and Aperol Spritz’s, the former of which we both unwillingly shared with seagulls in the area, I asked Bill what those things meant to him; the genuflecting and the holy water, not the cicchetti and Spritz. He told me that those things brought him closer to God. I asked him to elaborate.

cicchetti and Aperol Spritz in Venice

Confessions of a Recovering Catholic

So before I continue with Bill’s response, allow me to address the 800-lb gorilla in the post. As a child, I attended a Catholic elementary school, and I was also an altar boy, which we commonly used as a way to ditch class during mid-day mass. But I never bought into any of it.

I reserved special disdain in my heart for the clergy, who expected excessively repetitive and rote recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary through the rosary, while simultaneously sentencing additional recitations of the same as punishment for the numerous sins we were confessing to in a humiliating rite-of-passage in order to obtain permission to take communion.

Not to mention the many ‘special’ elements of the Catholic faith that had somehow not been added to Scripture (i.e., praying to Mary, confession to a priest, having to earn communion, calling a priest “father,” infant baptism, baptismal salvation, and so on). I was an atheist to be sure, but these memories facilitated my inherent distaste for the religion itself even after I became a believing Christian.

Now, there I was, watching someone for whom I take a large measure of responsibility in the faith going through many of these same rituals. I felt like a failure.

The Lesson

Bill’s response surprised me. He said that, unlike Protestant churches, Catholic churches enabled him to feel like he was more in God’s presence. He said that doing the sign of the cross, genuflecting, praying over candles, and doing the rosary helped him prepare his mind to enter into God’s presence. Bill hoped that doing these things pleased God, but he clearly understood that he was saved whether he did them or not. It just aided him in his worship.

I’ll admit, I welled up a bit. Though, through Jesus, we have all the freedom to approach the Father in prayer, was I taking advantage of that freedom in the same way that Bill was? Put another way, if Bill was aided in honoring or praying to God with these things, doesn’t that make them permissible?

I came to Christ within a non-denominational Protestant Church and have clung to that path ever since. Within such a community, the Catholic Church is regarded as a merit-based religion steeped in legalism consiting of biblical and extra-biblical laws. Moreover, and I understood this one firsthand, the entire religion was buried under a heap of rote ritual.

What I did not realize until I ‘stooped’ to relive a Catholic Church experience was that I, at least, may have been foregoing any church tradition or ritual altogether as bad things, in and of themselves. Rather than acknowledging that there was nothing wrong with using them with the proper heart-orientation to aid me in worship, I simply wrote them off as distrations from ‘real’ Christianity.

Scripture tells us, though, that a “proper” and properly oriented heart sacrifice is exactly what God wants.

Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God. (Hebrews 13:15-16)

That was convicting to me. Certainly, going through the motions as I had done in elementary school (i.e., the holy water, the candles, the rosaries) was simply that — going through the motions. I certainly wasn’t hoping to please the God that I didn’t believe in. I was just publicly doing what all the other kids were doing to stay out of trouble with the priests and nuns.

As a believing Christian, I now found myself prescribing others, like Bill, not to do such senseless things as part of his church life. But Bill’s version and my version of (call it) ritual obedience were in no way alike. Bill did what he did to please God. I did those same things to appear obedient. That was the reason for my prescription.

Even now, as a believer, I was rejecting them out of hand because (Catholics were doing them, and) they weren’t as good as ‘actual’ obedience. But, could it not also be inferred that doing anything in the absence of obedience is, of course, not as good as doing that same thing in the furtherance of obedience? I was throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Throughout the Bible, God desired for His people to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy (Ex 20:8), remember how God freed us from slavery in Egypt (Dt 6:12), and even when we partake in the Lord’s supper, to do it in remembrance of Jesus (1 Cor 11:24-25).

All feasts and festivals were given by God simply to remember Him. Now that we have freedom in Jesus not to practice these feasts and festivals, haven’t we sort of forgotten what God has done for us as a side effect of this freedom? And by admonishing someone who chose to participate in ritual remembrance in the name of this freedom, wasn’t I forgetting Paul’s words?

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. (Romans 14:1-3, 5-6)

I began to see things differently and learn to appreciate the worship that actually went into the creation of the many sculptures, paintings, frescos, and churches. I was beginning to see how these timeless remembrances, and maybe even a few Catholic remembrances if used properly, could further aid us in remembering the great God we serve and the endless grace He has bestowed upon us.

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)

The motives of the Catholic Church and/or the commissioners of these many artworks notwithstanding, I was learning how they could be good things. Viewed properly, I was learning to see them the way Bill was seeing them.

And we still managed to eat our fair share of great local food.

Saved for Later is a blog for the recently – or almost – saved adult. To get more of the foundational truths that we were not taught in childhood, subscribe to this blog. Please ‘like’, comment, and share!

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.