I was 17, I had overslept, and I was late for my boyfriend’s brother’s christening. The service was just beginning as I slipped into the church and quickly sank into an aisle seat toward the back.
I looked around—this was my first Catholic service, and I was curious as to what I would see. People stood up; I stood up. People sang hymns; I read along in the hymnal. People knelt; I stayed seated, hoping I wasn’t offending anyone.
Everyone stood up again and, row by row, filed into the aisle leading toward the front of the crowded church. I hadn’t quite heard—or understood—the priest, and for whatever reason, I failed to ask anyone around me what was going on. Uneducated as I was about Catholicism, I actually thought, “This must be the part in the service where everyone goes up to look at the baby.” When it was my row’s turn, I led the way into the aisle.
I was almost at the front when the truth revealed itself to me: everyone was presenting themselves to the priest to receive Communion.
The Holy Eucharist is one of seven Roman Catholic sacraments, or sacred ceremonies. Catholics believe in the doctrine of “transubstantiation,” which states that when the priest blesses or consecrates the Communion, that bread and wine mystically and miraculously become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. I didn’t know that at the time, but I had seen enough movies to know that this was a very holy ritual. I had also learned in history class and Hebrew school that Catholic Communion was a symbolically weighty thing for Jews—many have died over the centuries for refusing to take it.
Now, no one was forcing me to take it, not even a little. But by the time all these thoughts had swirled together in my mind, I was face-to-face with the priest’s kind smile, his hand extending a wafer to my inexplicably open palm. I glanced back at my boyfriend, his parents, and his six younger siblings, and my memory is that their shocked faces matched my blanched one. Still holding the wafer, I took a step away, thinking, “I can’t eat this.” But then, panicked, I realized I couldn’t keep it or throw it away either. I took a breath. I put the wafer in my mouth. It was smooth, flavorless. It dissolved instantly.
When I told my parents the story later that day, my mother urged me not to worry about it. I had erred on the side of politeness, she said—a better course of action than making a scene (i.e. trying to return the wafer, saying “No, thank you” to the priest, etc).
But my father, who rarely lost his cool about anything, went berserk. The fact that it was an honest mistake didn’t change the shamefulness of it in his eyes. I was a Jew, and I had taken Catholic Communion. With that one action, I had violated the most fundamental principles of Judaism, and validated a set of beliefs that are absolutely outside the boundaries of Jewish thought. Just as upsetting to him—if not even a little more—was that I had insulted Catholic belief and practice around one of the religion’s most sacred rituals.
In the wake of that dramatic conversation, I felt the responsibility of being a Jewish adult in a new way. I now understood that I’d need to be more upfront about what I was and wasn’t willing to do in religious contexts. Being polite and respectful was still a high value for me, but not mutually exclusive with the fact that I might need to say no to some things, or make special arrangements at certain events to find a way to be part of someone else’s celebration without betraying my own faith.
That was 23 years ago, and since then I’ve attended Harvard Divinity School, became a professional religion writer, and developed a solid hold on how to be true to myself as a Jew when attending the religious observances of another faith. But it hasn’t always been easy to find ways to assert my comfort level in the context of another faith when I’m being directly asked to participate.
After all, most religious participation situations involve the joyful life events—specifically weddings and baptisms—of people I care deeply about, and who have honored me by asking me to be part of their celebrations as wedding attendants or godparents. Saying, “Wait, I can’t do ______ because Jews don’t, plus I want to be respectful to your faith,” can come off as disingenuous, or at least annoying, when a friend just has you down for ‘Bible reading’ at their church wedding.
My very first time as a bridesmaid, the presiding Lutheran pastor required that attendants bow before standing beside the bride and groom at the altar. This was many years ago, and the Communion mistake was fresh in my mind when I told my friend I wasn’t comfortable participating in that part of the service. My objection prompted a one-on-one meeting with the pastor, during which I offered to withdraw from the wedding party if necessary because I wasn’t going to be able to bow at the altar. Happily, the situation was resolved smoothly, and I was allowed to pause respectfully instead of bowing before taking my place beside the bride.
Positive outcome—and a friendship that’s now entering its third decade—notwithstanding, that dialogue was strained, and I still feel bad I brought stress, or at least one more thing to deal with, into the wedding planning. But I don’t feel bad for declining to take part in that ritual. I could have just done it and told myself it didn’t mean anything, but I had learned that religious behavior is inherently meaningful. For me, in the shadow of my Communion moment, the decision to take a religious action would either matter all of the time or it never would matter at all. I felt pulled toward the former.
A few years after that wedding, the same pastor baptized my friend’s son, with my husband and me as his godparents. We had reviewed the text of the ceremony beforehand (and consulted our rabbi), and felt like it was something we could feel comfortable and proud doing. Almost 13 years in, our relationship with our godson has become both broad and deep, and entirely devoid of interfaith discomfort. If anything, our different perspectives have enriched our conversations about things like family, friendship, and honesty.
Some other simchas I’ve participated in have required similar negotiations, but people celebrating joyous life events almost always have an open attitude toward, for example, assigning me the “Old Testament” reading at a Catholic wedding; or, as when my husband was the best man at an Episcopal wedding, inviting him to stay standing when the other members of the wedding party knelt to receive Communion.
Sometimes, though, there’s no time for advanced conversation about the religious content of a service. Sometimes you’re 17 years old, propelled forward by the Catholics queued up behind you. Sometimes you have to make a decision in real time. And sometimes you make the wrong choice.
But I’m actually grateful for the Communion incident, because it taught me to take religious rituals—both my own and others’—seriously. It motivated me to learn to articulate my understanding of what Judaism asks of me, and to really listen to what others’ faiths ask of them. And most meaningfully of all, it put me on a path toward being truly able to celebrate life’s blessings—in good faith.
Holly Lebowitz Rossi is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Massachusetts.