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What Quakers and Catholics Might Learn from One Another

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When I was eight years old living in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Grandmother took me to a large, undecorated room with no chairs but filled with long benches for my first Quaker meeting. With very little instruction except to sit quietly and think about God—not sure what or who that was—I found the silence unbearable. I wiggled and squirmed until Grandmother poked me and told me to be still. Then just before the worship ended, it hit me that none of the grownups had said anything for almost an entire hour! They usually never stopped talking, and here we were in a big room altogether, kids and grownups, not saying anything. I sensed a stillness that was more than silence settling over us. Kids and grownups were all living in a quiet space that left me inwardly energized. Amazing! It became the cornerstone of my Quaker faith.

In 1978, when I was 47, driving home from a Catholic charismatic prayer meeting, I sensed the inner voice of love saying, “I want you to become a Catholic.” I protested I was already a Quaker and didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and other Catholic core beliefs, but the voice persisted and eventually I was baptized a Roman Catholic. Father Bedoin, my Norbertine mentor, said I might continue in Quaker meeting (at Middletown in Delaware County, Pennsylvania) on Sundays with the family and go to Mass on Saturday: a pattern I’ve roughly followed ever since.

I was raised in a Hicksite Quaker family in Atlantic City and absorbed Quaker concerns for peace and justice at Quaker schools: Westtown, George School, and Haverford College, and later I became a pacifist at an American Friends Service Committee summer workcamp in rural Mexico. That led to working for several years with David Richie in Philadelphia Weekend Workcamps and participating in public demonstrations against racism, poverty, weapons of mass destruction, and most of the wars we’ve been in over the last 50 years. In short, I appreciate the liberal Quaker public witness and our form of worship.

As I look back, what drew me to Catholicism was first of all the inner voice of love, mentioned above. It wasn’t about theology or liking the liturgy but about following that inner voice which has taken me to places I never thought I’d go, including marrying Betty, becoming a pacifist after leaving the Army, and becoming an elementary public school teacher. I’ve had serious contact with other forms of religion: American Indian, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islamic Sufism, but since Quakerism and Catholicism are my two spiritual homes, I’ll share reflections on what I think each might learn from the other.

What Catholics Might Learn from Quakerism

There are three things at least: first, to be led in our public lives by the teachings of Jesus, especially the Sermon on the Mount. No one, Catholics included, is against utilizing the Sermon and Paul’s capsule formulation in 1 Corinthians 13 in private and interpersonal life. It’s the public expression of love (being patient and kind for Paul, and for Jesus, loving enemies) that Catholics might learn from Quakers. They might educate their young to seriously consider becoming peacemakers rather than war supporters or war makers. They might follow their own teaching on peace provided by popes such as John XXIII and Francis, as well as the 1983 U.S. Bishop’s letter which challenged the Just War theory in a nuclear age and favored nonviolence as practiced by Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dorothy Day.

Catholics might also learn from Quakers more democratic ways of coming to decisions that affect the whole church. Catholics might adapt certain Quaker decision-making procedures, consensus and clearness committees for example, as a way to reform the entrenched bureaucracy (the Curia and clergy-dominated local dioceses and parishes). Since many Catholics, including Pope Francis, recognize the need to involve the laity (including women) more in the decision-making process, Quaker experience might be useful in pushing this along.

Finally Catholics, who have a long history of valuing quiet prayer in monasteries and elsewhere, might enjoy—and enjoyment is part of worship—the Quaker worship where silence leads to stillness, and stillness often to spontaneous vocal ministry that builds up the whole body. Quaker prophetic ministry might enliven the liturgy of the Mass which is still central to Catholic worship.

What Quakers Might Learn From Catholicism

Despite the autocratic elements in Catholicism, almost all Catholics, conservative, traditional, and progressive (“Vatican II Catholics” as we often call ourselves), experience the church as a mother, i.e., a nurturing presence who welcomes us whatever our sins or shortcomings may be. Quakers I’ve been around don’t dwell much on shortcomings and pretty much reject sin as a useful concept. When I’m in a Catholic church, I feel I can bring my whole self to God. I can grieve or even cry for things I’ve done wrong and for the sins I see around me in the world. If Quakerism is my righteous, prophetic spiritual father, Catholicism is my spiritual mother who loves me despite my personal shortcomings and times of emotional and spiritual confusion. Having Mary as a significant feminine figure in the Catholic tradition, as Carl Jung pointed out, softens Christianity’s often strident, masculine tone. While Jesus is clearly the center of Catholic worship—the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins are about Jesus, not Mary—I do value the feminine presence of the Divine in Mary. Forgiveness, always from Jesus and not Mary, is built into the ethos of Catholicism. That’s something Quakers might learn from Catholicism: to allow for a wider range of emotional expression in private life and in the meeting for worship. We rely on too much head at times, too little heart.

Second, Quakers might learn from Catholicism and other Christian faith communities to appreciate the essentials of biblical wisdom and Christian history and tradition. To dismiss these two resources because of one’s experience with heavy-handed, Bible-only believers or a repressive church experience in childhood seems not only to cut us off from other Christians, but to limit our spiritual growth as part of the ongoing Judeo-Christian revelation—a revelation which George Fox and early Friends revived in their time. One reason I believe I was open to the Spirit-led Charismatic Movement in the Catholic Church was my inability to connect the lively worship experience of early Friends with my experience in meeting. Quakers might learn from Catholics’ respect for the Bible and their tradition to respect our own Christ-centered or at least Jesus-influenced tradition. We should have no fear that the Quaker Jesus, the Prince of Peace, will speak to us as an angry evangelist. In fact, our Quaker understanding of Jesus is one of the gifts we have to offer the rest of Christianity.

Mentioning Jesus brings us to the third thing Quakers might learn from Catholicism, which is that worship is not only a time of personal meditation and reflection but also a communal sacred event. Many Quakers, but perhaps not enough, experience Quaker worship as I did when a child as a gathered meeting, a sacred event when we were visited by the Power Greater than Ourselves who can do more than we can ask or imagine. The communion that others may see as an outer event—the Eucharist or Last Supper—is for most Christians a moment of mercy when Jesus is present to the entire worshiping body. It’s a time when Catholics not only learn about God (the “Sacrament of the Word”) through Scripture readings, sermons, and prayers, but also receive God’s Spirit transformed in bread and wine into our bodies and souls (the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper). I don’t want to stress the difference here between Quaker and Catholic worship because I know many Christian services have become lifeless and oppressive for many believers. I do think, however, Quakers might come to meeting not just for reflection and meditation but as a time for reflection and worship: a meeting for worship to welcome and honor God, and put ourselves in the presence of the loving God who wants to share God’s love with each one of us and the whole meeting.

John Pitts Corry is a long time member of Middletown Meeting in Lima, Pa., and feels like a member of Albuquerque (N.M.) Meeting during the nine months of each year when he and his wife, Betty, live in Albuquerque. He is also a member of John XXIII Catholic Community in Albuquerque and has a long association with the Norbertines in Paoli, Pa., and Albuquerque.


Posted in: Features, Friends and Other Faiths

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12 Responses to What Quakers and Catholics Might Learn from One Another

  1. Agnikan May 1, 2015 at 7:25 pm #

    City & State
    Cincinnati OH
    John wrote:

    ” I protested I was already a Quaker and didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary, the Pope, and other Catholic core beliefs, but the voice persisted and eventually I was baptized a Roman Catholic. ”

    Now that you’re Catholic, how have you come to terms with core Catholic beliefs? Did you decide to believe in them first, and then convert; or did you convert, and come to believe later?

    • John Pitts Corry May 25, 2015 at 4:08 pm #

      City & State
      Albquerque, NM
      Dear Agnikan,

      I converted first in response to hearing the words driving home from a Catholic prayer meeting, “I want you to become a Catholic.” After that I read about and discussed what that would mean from a liberal (Vatican II) Norbertine priest. Some things were essential to my being a Catholic (belief in the Eucharist, saying the Apostle’s Creed with a straight face, accepting the role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic worship, and seeing the Pope as a blessed figure in Catholic life. I’d modify his role to be a bishop among bishops (collegiality). Some things were optional: rosaries (which I’ve used at times), and other devotions to Mary and the saints. I follow Cardinal John Newman who said he’d obey his conscience over the Church’s teaching but would consider the church’s teachings before making a final decision. I also like the church’s distinction between doctrinal truth (marriage is forever) and pastoral truth (leave your abusive husband now). Reminds me of Whitman’s “I am large, I contain contradictions.” I love Pope Francis’ pastoral approach. Thank you for raising a question I’ve pondered for years as I wrestle with the differences between my two faiths. What they have in common for me is that they both provide a means of grace, a way to put myself in the presence of God. Maybe some of us need two parents – even separated, to give us the love and support we need to Love God and Love our neighbor (and enemy). Those are the two basics for me, but I can’t do it without the presence, the love, and conversation with Jesus, my still risen, still very much alive savior, companion and friend.

      Thanks for emailing.

      Peace,

      John

  2. JDM May 6, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    I’m very grateful for these reflections. Since college most of my friends who were evangelicals have been baptized into the Catholic Church, largely because, like John Pitts Corey, they felt called by God, and also because of the contemplative and social justice traditions of the Church which had been absent in their experiences of evangelicalism.

    Growing up an Evangelical Quaker, I never felt the same pull they did, probably because contemplation and social justice were already a part of my Christian experience. But I’ve learned a great deal from my Catholic friends and the tradition generally; at this point in my journey its hard to imagine my faith without Catholicism, and I am always happy to sit in on a mass.

    What Corey suggests Quakers can learn from Catholics is spot on, I think. Extending his point about tradition, Friends could also be more open to the relationship between faith and reason, or faith and the intellectual life, that Catholicism embodies so well. The Quaker impulse to action, or Quaker reticence to put God in a box, can often be a form of anti-intellectualism that protects us from having to reflect about important theological, historical, and doctrinal questions. I think we could do more of this without compromising our conviction that the Christian life is not only a matter of thinking, but of living as well. And it might help us to better articulate Quakerism to others.

    • John Pitts Corry May 25, 2015 at 4:33 pm #

      City & State
      Albuquerque, NM
      Dear JDM,

      I resonate to your journey and comments on the need for Catholic and Quaker reasoned views of the Divine (theology of some sort) to balance more emtional Evangelical zeal for the bible and Jesus. And as you say when it’s all or mostly reason it puts God in a box. We’ve got a spooky faith (spooky meaning not solely reason bound). Miracles (I buy some not all) but that Jesus was risen – or else could I have met him standing across the room from me saying “Follow me” when I as 25 years old. I’ll keep you in my prayers that your life and journey with and to God go well.

      Warm greetings,

      John Corry

  3. Donna Pioli May 11, 2015 at 4:24 pm #

    City & State
    Stanwood, WA.
    Being a Catholic, being a part of the Charasmatic Renewal in the Catholic Church
    And being drawn to Contemplative prayer and life, absolutely drew me to read
    This article! Whew! Long sentence! I enjoyed your article very much.
    Having gone to Evangelical worship, I feel something missing. I feel incomplete
    With out the Eucharist.
    I have been curious about Quakers and your meetings. I think I would like those.
    Have you read Thomas Merton? He says in one of his books that monks are
    Not allowed to take anything with them into the chapel when they go in to pray.
    Since the monk has nothing else to do, he might as well pray!
    Loved your writing. Going to read more,

    • John Pitts Corry May 25, 2015 at 4:38 pm #

      City & State
      Albuquerque
      Dear Donna,

      Thanks for the kind words. Sounds like we’re on the same journey. I’ll keep us both in prayer that we become campfires glowing in all directions; not just flashlights focused more narrowly.

      Peace in Jesus, our friend, our savior, and our great love,

      John

  4. Nancy Thompson June 21, 2015 at 5:33 pm #

    City & State
    United Kingdom
    Thank you so much for sharing your story. It speaks very much to my condition. I was raised in the Liberal Quaker tradition and attended a Quaker school. I have recently been baptised and received into the Catholic Church and regularly attend Mass and Meeting when I can. I agree entirely with what you have said and have found it so helpful to hear your reasons for joining the Catholic church and your intelligent and thoughtful musings on the differences and similarities between the two denominations.
    God bless you.

  5. Steve Simms December 28, 2015 at 8:56 am #

    City & State
    Nashville
    So cool. In Nashville we are mixing Quaker and Salvation Army practices. Here’s more about it: https://stevesimms.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/new-book-full-of-salvation-army-history-quotes/

  6. Robert Pitts December 28, 2015 at 1:33 pm #

    City & State
    St. Joseph Mo.
    John I’m a Catholic from birth thanks to my Croatian mother but I’m also interested in genealogy and my 6th great grandfather was John Pitts who settled in VA in 1720 and his only son was Andrew Pitts who settled around Guilford Co. in NC in 1749. They were “birthright” Quakers and Andrew had a large family. I’m wondering, considering your middle name, if we might be distantly related?

  7. JIM MACPHERSON December 28, 2015 at 8:08 pm #

    City & State
    Ann Arbor
    Coming from a strict Catholic upbringing and embracing Friends as still a teenager (in the 1960s), I can appreciate your thoughts, John. But reading what you think “Quakers can learn from Catholics”, I wondered if you forgot the core of Quaker worship. It is less “a time of personal meditation and reflection but also a communal sacred event” than is is a time for us to get in touch with that of God within us; not through scripture, readings, sermons or even prayers, but through deep listening to that still small voice within, as well as the messages of others. I recently attended a Catholic Mass and am still a hundred fold more moved by the silence in Quaker worship. I still find the Catholic church sexist – Francis talks the talk, but not much has really changed in this area, shamefully tolerant and unashamed of it pedophile priests, homophobic (Francis met with Kim Davis!!!!) and still believing that truth comes from without (i.e., the church), not from within. While I miss the pomp and ceremony of my youth, I celebrate everyday my union with God and fellow men and women through Quaker faith and practice. Forgive me for saying this, John, but I sense some regret in you leaving Friends. Peace.

  8. Alyce Dodge December 28, 2015 at 9:33 pm #

    City & State
    Honolulu, HI
    Dear John,

    I read your article with great interest, followed by relief.
    It’s good to get to know another Catholic and Friend.

    I was raised as a Catholic, but my family left the church before I was confirmed. I come from a family of peace activists, and I naturally found my way to the Quakers through the AFSC as a young adult. When I became a Meeting member, I was open about being raised a Catholic and was not required to relinquish that. I loved the acceptance of the seasoned elders who were grounded in the Christian roots of Friends and silent worship, as well as in kindness and love. For two decades I served on almost every committee in Meeting. I raised my child as a Quaker, and she went to a Quaker High school.

    Over time, people and circumstances in Meeting changed; something seemed to be lacking to me. I started going to a nearby Catholic mass. I had a life-changing encounter with the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ. A few years ago, it was with great joy that I answered the inner call to be confirmed. I was very open about being a Quaker and intending to continue attending Meeting. That was fine with my parish and priest. However, when I told the Friends that I was also going to Catholic Mass, I was rebuked in Meeting and criticized by several people. This was pre-Pope Francis, perhaps by now some folks have soften their stance. However, I have scarcely been back to Meeting since that time, and have been grateful to have a welcoming spiritual home in the Catholic Church.

    I completely agree with you that Quakers and Catholics have much to learn from each other, especially in the areas you write so clearly about. You “speak my mind, Friend”, and even more, you have reached my heart.

    Thank youband God bless you.
    Alyce

  9. John Pitts Corry February 17, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    City & State
    Albuquerque, NM
    Reflecting on the two seemingly conflicting responses in the February 2016 Friends Journal to my earlier article What Quakers and Catholics Might Learn from One Another (May 2015), reminds me what a wondrous Spirit we all seek to live by. Jim MacPherson holds fast to his positive Quaker experience, rejecting the outer pomp of Catholic worship, while Alyce Dodge turning aside from Quakerism for now finds her spiritual life renewed by an “encounter with the forgiveness and love of Jesus Christ,” and is “grateful to have a welcoming home in the Catholic Church.”

    Rather than address in a brief letter the very real issues of sexism, pedophila, and homophobia which Jim mentioned, and the church’s effective or ineffective response, except to say I do think Pope Francis and his many allies in the church of some 1.2 billion members are sincere in their commitment to a renewed and merciful church, I would focus on the Spirit’s presence as I see it in Jim’s life, Alyce’s life, and my own life. Some like Jim are led to worship in a Quaker setting. Others like Alyce find God in a Catholic setting, and of course millions find comfort and guidance in other religious settings. And amazingly, if the worshipers are sincere and openhearted, God’s will is being done simultaneously in all these diverse faith communities. As the forum Viewpoint printed above the two letters responding to my article put it, “We are all Friends in the Spirit, we are all siblings in the family of god.” Even the few oddballs like myself who find ourselves led to and nourished by two primary religious communities, for reasons that are still not entirely clear to me.

    It’s not just that we ought to respect the religious rights of others; it’s that we look for and appreciate the presence of the Spirit in each group and each individual that seeks to follow what some Quakers might call the will of God and others the inner voice of love. Using different theological language all Quakers might agree the Spirit is urging us to work for Edward Hick’s Peaceable Kingdom, when justice and peace prevail over the poverty, oppression, and violence that permeates our world today.

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