My guys, Isaac and Dylan, eight and four respectively, had never been inside a Catholic church when my sister-in-law, Ana, asked them to be ring bearers at her wedding. The ceremony was to occur complete with a public celebration of the Eucharist, otherwise known as Mass.
Okay. I'd read parenting books ad nauseum. I knew that to raise the odds my kids would behave like perfect gentlemen, I needed to prepare them. What I didn't know, but quickly discovered, was that I had to prepare myself first.
Lurking just below my American melting pot values are fears directly traceable to the shtetl. When I encounter crucifixes, statues of Mary, and celibate priests, not to mention centuries of anti-Jewish Church doctrine the pope is only now beginning to address, I feel my Jewish sensibilities resisting all things Catholic. Obviously, if I was going to help my kids, the first thing I had to do was to acknowledge these feelings, shake hands with them, and then see them to the door, determined not to let them direct my actions.
I looked for a principle to guide me when I got stuck making decisions about specifics. One challenge for interfaith families like mine who are raising our children exclusively as Jews is how to teach them to embrace Judaism while being loving and respectful toward the faith, customs, and heritage of their non-Jewish relatives, especially their non-Jewish parent. My partial answer is that religious politics are one thing, family relationships another. I decided that Ana was lovely to honor my children with a role in her wedding, and they would reciprocate by participating. However, they would not partake in Communion or any other Catholic rituals because that would be disrespectful of both Judaism and Catholicism.
Pleased with this mature, reasonable attitude, I began preparing my kids. Ana's church was too far away, so I took them to the Church of the Sacred Heart around the corner to meet the priest, Father Coletti, see the inside of the sanctuary, and ask questions about what would happen at Mass and during the wedding. I had the impression that no one had ever asked Father Coletti to get Jewish children ready for a Catholic Mass, but he gamely agreed to see us.
When we arrived on the designated afternoon, we found that everyone expected us and helped shepherd us to the sanctuary. Dylan initially clung to me with a plaintive, "Mommy, I'm scared," but he warmed up gradually as Father Coletti gently and patiently explained the symbols around the church, the process of Communion, and the order of the wedding ceremony. Dylan and Isaac asked about the bas-relief pictorials on the walls, and Father Coletti explained the story they told of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I beat back the shtetl and reminded myself of all my mature and reasonable intentions.
Wedding weekend finally came. As we traveled to upstate New York, I imagined that the other trinity, child experts Leach, Brazelton, and Spock, were smiling down upon my skillful mothering. It was when we brought the boys to church that I got knocked off balance. As the processional reached the end of the aisle, the priest was requiring each person to bow or curtsey before the cross.
Hello? Open-mindedness and exceptional parenting skills? I was totally unprepared for this detail. My mind raced over the significance of the gesture. Did bowing to the cross belong in the permissible column of the ledger sheet? I didn't know what to do, but I had to do it fast. I considered Ana, so happy and beautiful in her wedding dress next to her groom, and my mother-in-law, who had informed the priest in advance that her Jewish grandsons would have a place in the ceremony right beside their Catholic cousins. I decided that bowing in front of the cross was not the same as kneeling or taking Communion, but more like a non-Jew wearing a kippah in synagogue: a sign of respect, only. I let my boys bow.
I hope my children absorbed two lessons from that day: that religious differences can make people closer, and that their Judaism is compassionate enough, warm enough, and strong enough to withstand intimate exposure to another religion.
Oh, yes, and the reception was a blast.