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Culture Shock in a Catholic Parish

David Emery | June 7, 2019 No Comments

ThomasWUK asked a question about Culture Shock in a Catholic church on our old discussion forum and received some insightful answers from the Coming Home Network community. We’ve curated the topic for you here. Feel free to continue discussion in the Disqus comment box below.


One thing I am struggling with as I continue the journey, that may be typical to others who’ve travelled before, is the feel/atmosphere of the Catholic churches I’ve been in. I have been twice to Mass since beginning to explore the Catholic Church. The first time, it honestly felt foreboding, and leaving Mass I felt a little morbid. Yet on New Years Day I went for the second time in a different parish and didn’t feel like this at all. In fact, the visual stimuli helped me to focus my mind and heart to worship. I guess there’s a big culture shock here when it comes to a Protestant coming into the Church. Can anyone else give any insights into this? There’s still a large part of me that wants to spout how the church in Acts meets in each other’s homes and make a point that we don’t need ornate churches, etc.

Howard Hampson

Hi Thomas,

The feelings you describe attending both Masses are pretty normal early in the inquiry and/or conversion process. It is a big change, particularly if you are coming from a non-liturgical Protestant background or tradition.

As you have noted, the visual/physical aspects of the Mass do help one to focus on worship. Catholicism is a major culture shock and paradigm shift in thinking for most Protestants.

The very early Church met in homes and synagogues, but the worship was decidedly liturgical.

As far as the ornateness goes, remember the woman who poured ointment over Jesus in adoration. The disciples objected, because it was worth a year’s wages — especially Judas, who was embezzling from their funds, on the grounds that the money could have helped the poor. Jesus rebuked them, saying the poor you will always have with you, and he defended the woman, saying she was preparing him for burial. The Catholic Church probably does more for the poor worldwide than any other organization. Plus much of the ornateness is symbolic, having meaning you will learn if you continue on your path.


I wasn’t probably as shocked visually by what I saw, because I had been Anglican about 30 years before I converted. I had given it up for non-liturgical Protestant churches, which of course were very different in their look. But still, it wasn’t a shock. I expected the Catholic Church to look that way.

What shocked me was the lack of interest in me, as I stood there, a total stranger with no friends or family. I was utterly ignored. Walking into a new Protestant church, I would have been tackled by the “greeters” and accosted with how wonderful the church was, given a rundown of all its super programming, and promptly introduced to half a dozen people, one of whom would have invited me to the ladies’ Bible study that week. But in the Catholic Church, for months on end, it was only the chirping of the crickets which greeted me. LOL. THAT was culture shock at its finest.

As soon as I mentioned to the priest that I wanted to start RCIA, he kept an eye open for me and introduced me to a few people — who promptly forgot who I was. I noticed that Catholics tend to know certain other Catholics, or come in family groups, and assume that everybody else does the same thing, so they can just ignore you because you are probably Catholic and you are supposed to be there, “So just get on with it.” They have literally NO idea how Protestant churches function, the competition between them in drawing in people, the constant “selling” of the congregation, and how they find endless ways of “knitting you into the fellowship” so you’ll never want to leave. That is what happens when you become a church-shopping Christian society, always trying to find the place that fits you to a tee.

But Catholics tend to just go to their local parish and assume everyone else does the same. They assume you are there because you are Catholic. They don’t assume you are church shopping, so they ignore and presume you are just fine. All the fellowshipping takes place elsewhere; in the various ministries or service groups mostly, or at the occasional fund-raising dinner, or on special occasions.

It is a different culture for sure. I have explained this to Catholics, who will listen politely and look at me completely blank, the experience being totally foreign to them. LOL.


I think what I noticed most, visually, at first, was statues of Mary at the front near the altar. It seemed like giving her the place where Jesus should be. But then I realised that Jesus is actually there in the Tabernacle. So no amount of imagery can rival or overshadow His Real Presence. The first time I understood what was happening, I couldn’t take my eyes off the Tabernacle and didn’t want to leave the church. I messaged a Catholic friend afterwards, saying, “What’s the shiny box? And the priest put the left over bread in it, so does that mean Jesus is actually in there?” She explained it all to me properly. I’ve had a ‘thing’ for the sacramental presence of Christ ever since. I no longer think statues or images distract or compete, but aid in lifting the mind to heaven — as the others described.

As to ornate buildings, I think it, again, has to do with the reserved Eucharist. It’s a house appropriate for God. He doesn’t need beauty and elaborate ornaments, but we do need it, to signify that He’s there. God knows we need it; think of the detailed instructions for the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle.

Jennie, perhaps the culture is different in your country. I’ve been to six different Catholic Churches now around Britain, and received a warm welcome in every one. People have noticed someone new and come to say hello. I turned up alone, not really knowing what I was doing, and left feeling like they wanted me there — but not in a pushy or intrusive way.


Katherine, I am glad it is different in your area. I have heard the same complaint from converts about many American Catholic churches as well. It may just be the northeast of North America, because I am in the Great Lakes area of Canada. It is such a very different approach to people coming through the door than what I was used to.

Howard Hampson

The friendliness of parishes does vary quite a bit from diocese to diocese and even parish to parish.

But large Protestant churches can also vary quite a bit in the success of their actual inclusiveness. In other words, they can have friendly greeters, volunteers and staff and greet you in the worship service, but to actually develop deep friendships in small groups may be rare.


There’s still a large part of me that wants to spout how the church in Acts meets in each other’s homes, and make a point that we don’t need ornate Churches, etc.

Jesus taught in the synagogues, and the apostles did, too. They also attended and obeyed the rituals of the temple. The very earliest generations of Christians went to the synagogues and also met separately for the Eucharist on Sundays. This gradually changed to only meeting outside of synagogues, as Christianity became more separate from Judaism, because the majority of Jews did not accept Christ, and Gentiles were increasingly making up the Church.

To begin with, the Christians were a minority group, so they did not have facilities other than their houses. There is evidence that specific houses were used consistently as churches, so it was more formal than simply turning up at a different place each week. It was not possible for the Church to have dedicated buildings for a long time, due to persecution, so meeting in homes was the only option.

As numbers grew, and as the faith became legal, it made practical sense to have meeting places specifically for Christian worship, and so church buildings began to be favoured over houses. Unity is a key part of Catholic faith, so having people worship together is preferable to many smaller groups. This unity used to be emphasised by all churches in a city sharing the same Eucharistic bread. A runner would take a portion of the consecrated bread from the bishop to the other priests, where it was placed in the wine as a symbol of unity in the one Christ.

The origins in synagogue and temple worship show that the first Christians did participate in liturgical worship in dedicated buildings, in obedience to God. The new covenant liturgy of the Mass is a continuation and fulfilment of the old covenant liturgical worship. It was done with great reverence in the available places, and although it developed into the form we have now, the essence of it is clearly visible in the very first writings of the Church. When you trace the practices back to the beginning, it is not such a big change, and it never resembled informal Protestant house churches.


I think we have to remember, as well, especially with the European churches, but even in our own as well, that much of the “decorations” were donations and gifts by individuals. Every one of the stained-glass windows in my parish is noted as a gift. The entire narthex is noted as a gift. The various statues, and even the hymn books, are noted as gifts from individuals. Howard already mentioned the woman who poured very expensive ointment over the feet of Jesus, only to be rebuked by Judas Iscariot. She was giving Jesus a gift, and He accepted it, saying that the poor would always be with us. He wasn’t being callous at all, just differentiating between gifts and alms, I suppose. The two serve different purposes.

I have often heard complaints by anti-Catholics, saying that the Catholic Church is hypocritical because it doesn’t sell off all its riches and give them to the poor; but it is no more hypocritical than the United States not selling the entire contents of the Smithsonian Intitution and giving the proceeds to the poor. It is part of their “national treasure” and represents the nation’s heritage. Selling it would be a travesty. The same applies to the Catholic Church, which in spite of everything — and this amazed me as a Protestant and continues to amaze me as a Catholic — retains a status as a nation, with embassies worldwide and with a seat in the United Nations.

It is fitting that where Jesus resides should be a beautiful and holy place, just as it was fitting that Mary was a beautiful and holy place when he resided in her womb. It is fitting, not necessary, that these places should inspire awe and quietness of heart, and thoughts soaring towards God.


The Church has too often acted and measured itself according to the values of the world, rather than the values of the Kingdom of God. There are plenty of famous financial scandals throughout the centuries, and a general attitude of amassing security. But there is also at least as much history of sacrifice, asceticism, and of the resources of the Church being used to benefit the poorest in the world. I wanted the Church to be perfect before deciding to throw my lot in with it, but I soon realised that was impossible. The Church is made up of ordinary people who struggle with sin. There never was perfection; that’s apparent from the New Testament epistles to the young churches. They were trying, failing, and trying again. Always by the grace of God trying to reform themselves into living as He wants under the guidance of the Apostles and bishops. That process is ongoing and must be embraced by each individual, as well as the whole church, so you’ll see it’s unrealistic to expect too much perfection. The fact that there are constant efforts being made towards perfection is enough evidence that the Holy Spirit is at work within the Church.

Add to that the points people have already made about the practicality of buildings, the appropriateness of glorifying God through art and architecture (God-given human capacities), facilitating worship, providing a suitable place for the Eucharist etc, and the fact that many of the ornaments are gifts from faithful who want to praise God (like the woman with the perfume jar), and that visible history helps encourage faith and connectedness with Christians of the past, and even inspires conversion sometimes. This doesn’t even take into account the invaluable contributions to art, science, philosophy, and literature that the Church has made and preserved for the good of everyone. It is not a clear-cut question of, Are buildings good/bad, Should/shouldn’t we have them? It’s instead a question of, Is the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, and is she trying to conform to the Kingdom of God?


That’s all really helpful, thank you. Being shown the unique situation of the early Christians — meeting in the synagogue to worship as well as among fellow Christians in homes to break bread, etc. — helps show how the Christian place of worship developed. Also, being shown that it aids worship, and that they were gifts from a heart of worship. On reflection, the church I was a member of for the longest time spent a fair amount of money and sacrifice to have their own building. Just their aesthetic sensibilities and theology are very different!


I grew up in a small, rural Church that was devoid of art. There was a mural behind the baptistery and a cross that hung above the minister’s podium, but that was it. When I was a Protestant, I didn’t give much thought to liturgical art, because it wasn’t something that I was used to. To me, it was a church and it didn’t matter whether it looked aesthetically sound. All that mattered was that people were worshipping God there. Thinking back, I did find that my mind would wander a bit during the sermon. In the denomination that I grew up in, the sermon lasted about 20 minutes to half an hour. I would sometimes watch the cross during the sermon, or focus on the mural. I didn’t know it back then, but I was hungering for liturgical art.

There is one Catholic Church in my home town, and stepping into that building when I was a young Protestant was a culture shock, because there was art EVERYWHERE: beautiful German stained-glass windows, statues, a Tabernacle, icons of the Evangelists, etc. It seemed… excessive… and unnecessary. It didn’t make me feel… comfortable. Combining that with the fact that I thought Catholicism was empty piety, it didn’t do anything for me at the time. I saw liturgical art as silly.

Now that I am a Roman Catholic and sometimes attend Divine Liturgy at a Byzantine Catholic church, I find that I need that art for contemplation. I am inclined to love art by nature, but the fact that God became man and elevated the human to the divine tells me that art can raise the mind to prayer. We can experience God through our senses: sight, touch, smell, taste, sound. Catholicism (both East and West), we are a faith of incarnation.

The parish that I attend has beautiful German stained-glass windows, and I find myself getting caught up in them during Sunday Mass or even a daily Mass. (In my area of Indiana, in the US, there are a lot of people whose families came over from Germany during the 19th century.)


I am from the Northeast, and it is true, we are not as outwardly sociable as some. But I believe that we New Englanders also tend to be more honest in relationships and more selective about our friends. There are cultural differences as well as personal preferences. My husband is from an Italian/French–Canadian background. He left the Church when we were married. I am on my way to conversion and have begun attending Mass weekly. He agrees to come when he can; we have a disabled son who visits us on some weekends. When my husband attends, I know he is touched, and that the Holy Spirit is working, but he feels so lonely. He loved the emotions, the excitement, the “on” feeling of a Sunday at a Charismatic/Non-Denominational church. We both used to laugh at how the Catholics rush out of Mass and into their cars. (Even I don’t get that part!) I love the Mass because of the sacredness, the beauty, and the history behind the rites. My husband keeps waiting for me to get bored and change my mind. He knows I have been converted already by study and the work of God’s grace, but all that is left are the social barriers. My children accept my journey, but my husband has days when he lashes out with negative, biased views about the Catholic faith, which shows me that he never really understood his faith. He went to Catholic school for eight years and was an altar boy. He loved the nuns. He just could not accept that we cannot know that we are saved and that there is a Purgatory. I cannot explain much to him. The Holy Spirit has to do the work. I am not letting his attitude stop me, since he agrees with my decision and supports it. I will complete the journey, with or without his reversion. I am just wondering if anyone else has shared this experience of being married to a “people person” who just does not find fulfillment in a church without relationships. We depended all of our lives on our social relationships formed in churches. We are now in our 60’s.


Several years ago I started attending Mass with my Catholic wife. I experienced feelings similar to what others expressed. The atmosphere was “cold.” No one seemed to notice that we were new. No one ever asked me why I didn’t come forward for communion with my wife. What struck me was this: in a church like this, if you don’t know what is going on and why, you probably won’t stay or come back. If it weren’t for my wife, it would have been “one and done” for me. But eventually we did get to know some people.

I have also noticed that the atmosphere can vary greatly from one Catholic parish to another. One Sunday, we attended a large church in another town. When the priest finished serving up front, he came all the way down to the back row to ask me if I wanted to partake. How he knew I don’t know, but it left me with the impression that these people care about you.

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