One of the other parishioners had brought a non-Catholic friend to Mass. She happily introduced me to her guest. We went into the church together, and sat in the same pew. Because there is Eucharistic Adoration just before daily Mass at this parish, the parishioner pointed to the monstrance and whispered simply and confidently to her friend, "That's Jesus...."
I thought about the newcomer all throughout the Mass; I saw everything through her eyes. And I had so many questions. Why are there pictures of popes everywhere? Why are you praying for Mary's help in front of that "Jesus"? What is that forboding-looking picture (the Black Madonna), and why is it in the middle of the wall instead of "Jesus"? Why are some of these women wearing veils? Are all these candles really necessary?
If I'd been to my first Mass in a less old-fashioned parish (like the one where I grew up), I would have had a different set of questions. Why are these statues so ugly? Do all your churches look like warehouses? If that's the 'presence' of Jesus, why does everyone chat in here? And are all these candles really necessary?
But regardless of the parish, the biggest challenge would come as the faithful knelt and bowed low at the consecration. I imagined a visitor saying to me, "You are an intelligent person in a first-world country. You are going to be a physician, and you are bowing in front of a piece of bread. This is backwards. It's indecent."
I wish I could have had a word with the visitor before she left, but they left right after Mass and I was going to stay for Evening Prayer and meditation. I would have said to her, "don't be distracted by all the candles and statues and pictures."
In all my moves, and even the single diocese where I live now, I've seen parishes all over the spectrum between Spartan and Baroque. Some Catholics (like my Cistercian spiritual director) love rough-hewn blocks of stone, representative or primitive statuary, and unfinished wood. Others (like my mother) love filigreed altar rails, marble altars, and stained glass.
But those are all accidents, and the only purpose of all that stuff is to help our stubborn hearts bow to that impossible shock of the Eucharist. "Focus on that little Host," I wanted to tell that visitor, "Everything else in here is for our sake. You could go to another parish if you their architecture or their community helps you more. Or you could just be detached about it. But all this stuff is just to help you fall in love with God. And that," I'd say, pointing to the Host, "is God."