Football season is upon us! And football season for my family means … perusing the catalog from Notre Dame’s Hammes Bookstore! No actual books, of course, but lots and lots of merchandise—t-shirts, sweatshirts, jackets, hats, umbrellas. How about a pair of Notre Dame sandals?
Despite the internet and Amazon, actual physical catalogs keep showing up in our mailboxes—and it’s a good thing too. Even if we’re not going to purchase anything, it’s fun to flip through the pages, dog-earing the ones with desired items, and circling our favorites in case somebody is looking for Christmas gift ideas. There must be a payoff for the businesses because they keep printing the catalogs and we keep finding them in our mailboxes.
There’s another catalog of sorts that I keep on my shelf that I enjoy leafing through, but definitely not for shopping. It’s the Handbook of Denominations in the United States from Abingdon Press. I have the eighth edition published in 1985, but there have been five editions since then. Frank S. Mead put together the original Handbook back in 1951, and it has been revised and reissued every five years or so. Mead passed away in 1982 after the seventh edition came out; the revisions since then have been handled by Samuel S. Hill and, more recently, Craig D. Atwood.
When I was a restless Evangelical, I would consult my Handbook (probably that seventh edition by Mead himself) as I visited various churches and struggled to comprehend their beliefs and practices. An Episcopal liturgy one week (flip, flip, flip, find the page), then a Friends’ Meeting the next (flip, flip, flip). I had been raised Presbyterian and educated by Methodists, so Mead was especially important for me as I bounced back and forth between my Calvinist roots and the allure of Wesleyan-Arminianism.
In time I became a Catholic, but I still like to rummage around in Mead. I teach at an Evangelical college, and most of my colleagues and students are Protestant, so I rely on Mead to fill me in on their traditions. Plus, the Handbook is helpful at home—for my kids, for example, to know something about the Protestant Christianity practiced by various relatives and friends. And when a Mormon missionary or Jehovah’s Witness comes to the door? Mead is always at the ready for some quick prep.
It’s not perfect, of course, and certainly not exhaustive—Catholicism itself is summarized in a mere seven pages in my edition. But even accounting for its shortcomings, I like to keep my Handbook close by for reasons other than its value as a reference work. Namely this: It’s a reminder of the urgency that attended my search for an ecclesial home.
Like many Christians, I had a crisis of faith after I left home and went off to college. Fortunately, C.S. Lewis’ writings accompanied me there, and I took to heart his words from the introduction to Mere Christianity:
But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.
I knew Christianity was true, and I loved Jesus as best I could, but I was lonely for something more—for companionship; for the fires, chairs, and meals Lewis referred to. So, I started hunting, and my quarry was the true church, the one Jesus talked about as needing to remain one. Mead’s Handbook was like a map, helping me sort out essential ecclesial landmarks and enabling me to scrutinize truth claims.
And that’s what it’s about, ultimately—truth. Lewis is helpful again here: “In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true?'” Visiting the various churches was essential, but even more important was evaluating their doctrines, and Mead made that possible at a rudimentary level.
Ultimately, of course, it wasn’t my visiting and evaluating that led to my becoming a Catholic, but rather God’s extraordinary generosity and grace—for which I am profoundly grateful. It’s good to be home, and I can barely remember what it was like to be homeless. But I’m also keenly aware that others are still on the road or have found other homes, and we are all obliged to get along. After all, we’re kin—something affirmed by Vatican Council II, and reiterated by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint:
Indeed, the elements of sanctification and truth [are] present in the other Christian Communities, in a degree which varies from one to the other. To the extent that these elements are found in [them], the one Church of Christ is effectively present in them.
With the Council and the Pope, I unquestionably believe that the one Church of Christ “subsists in the Catholic Church”—I wouldn’t be a Catholic otherwise. A logical corollary to this is the idea that all ecumenical efforts and dialogue have to be oriented to reunification and the restoration of full communion. Anything less wouldn’t be honest, nor would it be directed to the best interests of our separated brethren.
Still, real structural reunification of all the disparate Christian branches, not to mention sharing in full communion, is a long ways off. In the meantime, there’s much to be accomplished, and it starts with mutual understanding. As Lewis writes,
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.
Think of Mead’s Handbook as a guest list: All those different Christian groups have some kind of relationship with Jesus, and He wants them in on the Feast! So, let’s get to know them and their faith traditions. Ecumenical relations shouldn’t be left to the experts; we all have a role to play as we interact with neighbors, co-workers, and friends.
And in an age when Christians of all sorts are under attack throughout the world—both literally and figuratively—we would do well to include some flipping around in Mead’s catalog as a part of our spiritual reading, and then keeping it handy as we pray.
Editor’s note: The image above entitled “Interior of St. Peter’s” was painted by Giovanni Paolo Panini in 1731.