I walk two miles each morning around our small town for exercise. I usually try to get out to walk between 6 and 7 a.m. so I will have time to recover, shower, and have breakfast before going to work. My walk takes me in front of our local Catholic Church which is usually very quiet and vacant at that time of the morning. This morning, though, I began to hear their church bells ringing when I was a few blocks away, not the jubilant bells of a wedding or the regular bells calling people to worship or prayer, but mournful bells, one tone, followed about 10 seconds later by another tone, long and slow tones. This lasted for at least five minutes, I think. The time was about 6:30 a.m. when the bells began to chime.
So, when I reached the Catholic Church at 6:30 a.m., I saw cars there and people getting out of their cars to go into the church, in the darkness of this new day. Not a lot of cars but enough that it made me curious why people would be going to the church at 6:30 a.m. I thought maybe they were having daily mass but that usually meets in a small chapel north of the main sanctuary. The church was aglow with lights that made the stained glass windows very apparent. So, a regular service was about to begin---at 6:30 a.m. on a Thursday. Again, I was puzzled...what could be going on?
Then, I remembered that today is called "All Souls Day" on the Christian Calendar. It follows "All Saints Day" which was held yesterday. In Christianity, All Souls Day commemorates the souls of Christians who have died. Christians pray for their departed loved ones on this day. Some people visit the cemeteries where they loved one are buried or light candles in their memories. So, that solves the mystery. Those early risers were going to the Catholic Church to pray for their departed loved ones and to remember them.
Part of me was a bit jealous that the local Catholic priest can get his members to come to church at 6:30 a.m. I wondered what kind of turn out we would have at our local Protestant church if we had a sunrise service at some time other than Easter Sunday. I figure I would be there alone, maybe accompanied by a musician if we needed one or by my wife, who goes to a lot of church services "to be supportive" whether she wants to go or not. Even if the service was held at noon on a weekday, attendance would still be poor if not dismal. What hold does the Catholic Church have on parishioners that we do not have in the Protestant Church? Why do faithful Catholics respond to worship opportunities when Protestants shy away from them?
Maybe it has something to do with the word "Protestant" itself. When the Reformation began over 500 years ago, the reformers were protesting the things that they considered wrong that were being done by the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church. Martin Luther knew of at least 95 things so he wrote them up and posted them on the door of the church attached to Wittenberg Castle, a kind of medieval bulletin board, actually. People read his list and discussion began. The fires of Reformation began burning and it spread to other European countries and reformers such as Zwingli, Knox, and Wesley began showing up to also protest what they thought was wrong with their particular form of organized religion in their area. Add King Henry VIII to the list who formed his own church so he could turn up his nose at the Pope and marry Anne Boleyn after getting the divorce he wanted from his first wife, and religion began to look a lot less Catholic and more Protestant.
Some followers of the Reformers began destroyed stained glass windows and statues in Catholic Churches and Henry VIII closed all the monasteries and convents and claimed their assets, often destroying their buildings too. Suddenly being a Protestant was rejecting anything that smacked of or reminded one of the Roman Catholic Church. So, today Protestants are hesitant to reinstate anything that could be seen as Catholic for fear of edging back toward the thing we pushed away from 5 centuries ago..
Another reason why Catholics will go to church at "Dark-Thirty" or midday or in the evening on a weekday, is that Catholics are taught that church attendance is required and not going to church is considered a sin that has to be reckoned with at confession. Some days, such as All Souls Day, are considered "days of obligation" or as a principal of mine referred to times to meet with him "command performances". You have to go or suffer the consequences. Days of Obligation bear even a heavier sin penalty than just regular days.
Protestants did away with requirements of church attendance when we began to teach that Jesus was our friend and we could have a "personal relationship with Jesus." Suddenly, we were free to go to church or not go to church. God would understand our need to be elsewhere and if we attend several times a year, or not, Jesus will not impose his will upon us. We are free to be as nonreligious as we desire since we know Jesus personally and know that he forgives us for all that we do or do not do. His grace covers it all and that is all that matters. So church attendance is optional, if at all.
Has being Protestant become a form of being little or nothing? Do we still have belief in being connected to something much larger than ourselves called The Church of The Christian Community? Do we still need what the Church provides as we worship together? Do our actions speak louder than our words when it comes to belief when we will allow anything to have higher value or precedence over our dedication to and participation in our local church? Does it even matter to many of us whether or not the church exists when we do not it as enough necessary or needful to even attend its worship services, whether on a Sunday or not? Just some questions to ponder as we think about why we are Protestants and why our Catholic neighbors will venture out into the dark to attend a worship service when we find that idea ludicrous. Or do we?