What Garrison Keillor Needs to Know
About Lutherans and Catholics
October 8, 1997


The people of Lake Wobegon are about equally divided between Lutherans and Catholics, attending Lake Wobegon Lutheran Church (David Ingqvist, pastor) or Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility Catholic Church (Fr. Wilmer Mizell, O.S.J.). As we begin the 1997-98 season, we look to you - our listeners, our critics - for a few words of guidance on the subject of Lutherans and Catholics, especially those of you who have been attending with some regularity this year. What are the touchstones, the essential cultural landmarks, of each church, in your own experience, that the News from Lake Wobegon should reflect? That is the focus of this week's chat. Be frank. Now is the time for scathing criticism, if you have some to offer. The newsman, in this case, is on pretty thin ice, having grown up in the Plymouth Brethren and now attending (fitfully) an Episcopal church. Stories about Lutherans and Catholics should have a firm footing in historic fact and possess a certain verisimilitude. Here's a chance to tell us where we're going wrong.

--Garrison Keillor, October 7, 1997


Gkeillor: Ellen......thanks for joining us.

Gkeillor: You're studying Catholic schools? or you're a student in one?

Ellen: Glad to be here, I think I may have some insights for you on the Catholic upbringing

Gkeillor: I can't wait.

Gkeillor: Type as fast as you can, Ellen.

Gkeillor: Hold nothing back.

Elyn: I am also a product of Catholic education.

Elyn: That goes against the Catholic grain, GK!

Gkeillor: What are the basemarks of Catholic education? Elyn? Or Ellen?

Ellen: I mean to say I had 12 years of Catholic education before college.

Gkeillor: Okay, there are two of you. Elyn and Ellen.

Gkeillor: I was confused.

Vonni: They all wore uniforms.

Gkeillor: Tell me about those 12 years, Ellen.

Gkeillor: What sort of school was it?

Gkeillor: Run by nuns, as in popular (Protestant) mythology? or something else?

Elyn: The concept of the uniform speaks for the entire experience - hang your personality up at the door.

Gkeillor: Of course. That's well in keeping with Christian theology, isn't it?

Ellen: I'd have to say I am glad I went through the Catholic schools, it was hard being the only one bussed out of my neighborhood while my friends went to school together in the public school system.

Gkeillor: The purpose of the faith is not to be Individual, is it? Oh never mind. I'm nattering.

Elyn: I was privileged to attend both Catholic grammar and high schools - high school was entirely female.

Gkeillor: Why are you glad, Ellen?

Vonni: Catholics have a buffer by going through the Virgin Mary, Lutherans go straight to the source. Sometimes when you're in trouble with the guy upstairs, it would be nice to have an intermediary. Rachel: Being a Jew, I can't enlighten you on the 2 selected religions of the day, but I do notice some similiarities between Lutherans and Jews when I listen to PHC. For example, the guilt. Luckily, Jews get the opportunity to repent all in one, food-less, very holy day. It seems that in Lutheranism, the repenting is dragged out across the whole year. Is that correct?

Vonni: Lutherans have no confessional or hail Marys - they can't leave the guilt behind - gets pretty heavy over the years.

Elyn: Guilt pervades all religions - that's how they keep us in line.

Gkeillor: We have earned our guilt, if you ask me. Nobody has to impose it on us.

Vonni: Lutherans have no purgatory to Hail out of - it's either one or the other when you die - straight to heaven or hell - no variation.

Gkeillor: Anyway, I have. But enough about guilt----- details is what we want. Elyn, how was your school different?

Vonni: OK, I agree. I've earned my guilt.

Gkeillor: What was the uniform?

Gkeillor: When was your religious education? Where? Who taught it?

Vonni: I went to Luther High School, Onalaska WI

Elyn: We wore plaid pleated skirts with hunter green vests and white blouses. We had to kneel on the floor to show the nuns that our skirts were the appropriate length.

Ellen: Guilt is certainly one thing I learned in Catholic school. I don't really believe in confession.

Gkeillor: This session is for the purpose of educating the author on matters he is not informed about. The author knows about guilt. He is looking for information.

Gkeillor: Did you have to kneel on the floor every day?

Elyn: And patent leather shoes were strictly verboten - it might reflect something beneath one's skirt.

Ellen: I only wore a uniform in grade school ( a blue plaid skirt and a white shirt with a blue sweater.

Gkeillor: What other daily rituals were part of your school?

Gkeillor: That's mythology, Elyn. No?

Gkeillor: About shiny shoes?

Gkeillor: My Catholic school friends insist it wasn't true.

Ellen: No kneeling on the floor in my time but in my parents day it was a must.

Gkeillor: Did you like your uniform, Ellen?

Elyn: No - we even had one loony nun who forbade white bows in your hair - it might make the boys think of a pillow.

Gkeillor: Didn't you feel secure in it?

Ellen: I liked the uniform then but wouldn't have liked it in high school.

Gkeillor: What did the nuns look like? When were you in school, by the way?)

Vonni: At least you didn't feel you had to compete with those who could afford the best of everything.

Elyn: When we were all together it was a sign of togetherness - but when you got on the train at the end of the day it made you stick out like a sore thumb.

Gkeillor: This was an eastern school?

Gkeillor: We have buses in the midwest.

Gkeillor: No trains.

Ellen: I had brothers in the first part of high school and then it was a mixture of nuns and regular teachers. Most of the nuns were dressed in habits until around 1977.

Elyn: Yes, my school was in Brooklyn, New York

Gkeillor: Okay. What are the crucial elements of your Catholic school experience that a Protestant (me, for example) might not understand??

Elyn: Now we try to guess who the nuns are by their tiny earrings.

Gkeillor: What are these earrings???

John: I lived across the street from a Catholic family. During the summer, on Wednesday nights they whole family packed into their station wagon and went to church. It really interrupted our games of baseball. I asked if I could go to church with them but they said I was to late. I would have to go to too much school to catch up.

Elyn: Are you surprised that the modern nun wears them?

Gkeillor: How do these earrings denote them as nuns?

Ellen: I would say the crucial elements of the Catholic school experience is in the teachings of the church. Of going to mass with your classmates and thinking we all believed the same things.

Gkeillor: And did this set you apart from us Protestants?

Gkeillor: I still don't understand how you tell a nun is a nun by her earrings.

Elyn: Short haircuts, tiny earrings - small nondescript gold earrings - no specific design, but they sort of clue you in - then you look at the ring finger and the ring is a cross.

Gkeillor: What is nunlike about the earrings???

Ellen: Yes, I felt I was holier than protestants.

Elyn: A crucial element I remember was forced confessions and segregation of children from their parents at family mass.

Ellen: For a long time I didn't know there were other religions, I thought everybody was Catholic.

Gkeillor: In what way were you holier, Elyn? how did you see us?

Ellen: Forced confessions! Those were rough, every week you had to come up with something to confess, which is hard for a kid.

Gkeillor: When did you find out otherwise, Ellen?

Gkeillor: Didn't you have real things to confess to, Ellen?

Lpastor: Garrison, how do you know so much about what it's like to be a Lutheran pastor in a small town? I often feel that Ingkvist is me.

Gkeillor: The purpose of this discussion is to talk about what I DON'T know. Thanks.

Gkeillor: Do Catholics still use the confessional? or is it congregate, as it is for Lutherans?

Elyn: How much does one have to confess at the tender age of eight or nine? Not wanting to take turns with the TV?

Gkeillor: Yes, of course. Isn't selfishness a sin?

Gkeillor: Let's try to address the topic: what do I need to know about Lutherans, or Catholics......

Gkeillor: In other words, things that I may not know.

Elyn: It's face to face now - an open room - you can go behind a panel if you don't want to face the priest, but that usually means you've got big things going on....

Ellen: No real things to confess, just the usual, not getting along with siblings, maybe swearing or telling lies.

Gkeillor: Are you supposed to fast between confession and communion?

Elyn: I once made an entire confession in an empty confessional - I thought the priest was there, but he wasn't, and when I realized what I had done I didn't want to leave (too embarassed.)

Lpastor: Do Lutherans really come across like every day is Lent? Truthfully, Lutherans I know who live in the Good News don't come across this way.

Gkeillor: Were others waiting in line, Elyn?

John: How about all the prerequisites or rules to become a Catholic. Look in the front of a Catholic Bible to see all the requirements.

Ellen: No fasting, but you can't go to communion unless you've been to confession

Elyn: We only fast for one hour before communion now.

Gkeillor: What are those, John? I don't have a Catholic Bible here.

Gkeillor: How do you prevent Protestants from sneaking in to communion?

Elyn: Not at that confessional, which should have clued me in, but I was just a child and didn't realize that the light above the door was not on.

Elyn: The church was, however, full.

Vonni: Why do Lutherans and Catholics have different Bibles anyway?

Gkeillor: What was your most rapturous moment as a Catholic child, Elyn? Ellen?

John: I do not remember them all. I read them in an ICU when my daughter was born. I was impressed by the list of classes to learn the Bible.

Ellen: I can't believe anyone would want to sneak into confession.

Elyn: I always got swept away at the holiday masses - when we had a full choir and they played the big organ - our church has two organs, the smaller one was used on ordinary Sundays.

Gkeillor: Christmas?

Gkeillor: Easter?

Elmo: I went to a Catholic grade school, public high school, and a Catholic women's college. After that I became a Quaker for 12 years. Now I'm an Episcopalian.

Elyn: Yes, Christmas and Easter, definitely.

Gkeillor: Others??

Elyn: I can't recall any other holiday when we used the full choir.

Gkeillor: What was the music?

Lucy: Funerals and Weddings.

Gkeillor: Not the same as what we sang, surely.

Gkeillor: What did it smell like?

John: Why are Catholic masses always joked about being so long, and everyone having to standup, kneel, sitdown, etc.

Ellen: Rapturous moment: Ave Maria being sung by a choir in the cathederal

Gkeillor: John, check the question, please.

Gkeillor: When, Ellen?

Gkeillor: Is that a wedding anthem?

S_nelson: G Keillor: Would you like to know some nifty Lutheran funeral expressions or some great, funny-yet true- Catholic/Lutheran comparisons?

Gkeillor: Do Lutherans have rapturous moments?

Elyn: Goodness, I can't recall the names of those hymns. And as for smells - the smell of the incense that they would use only for funerals - what a heavenly scent.

Booklady: As a Lutheran child, I remember memorizing passages from the Bible. They were from Luthers Small Catechism for childeren. Then you had to memorize the part that started What this means to me....

Gkeillor: Your church, Elyn, sounds like a bigger one than the one in Lake Wobegon.

Elyn: I had friends who were altar boys and they would sneak us some of the incense.

Gkeillor: Booklady, can you clarify a little bit------

Gkeillor: Are there altar girls now?

S_nelson: They (=Catholics), We (=Lutherans), They had incense; we had Air Wick (that green slimey stuff). They had Patron Saints; We pretty much fended for ourselves. They danced; we twirled around church basement poles.

Elyn: It was a fairly large church, but you know there are specific size rules as to what they classify a church as, so while our church was large it wasn't large enough to be a basilica, while a neighboring church was.

Gkeillor: I'm not familiar with Luther's Small Catechism.

Vonni: Lutherans and raptuous moments - yes. It's like the Eureka experience. A knowing and warmth comes about you and you feel filled with the Spirit.

Gkeillor: S Nelson, I believe you are quoting from a little book, yes?

Gkeillor: When is this, Vonni?

S_nelson: Am I book lady? Janet Letnes Martin and I (Suzann Nelson) just released the book Growing up Lutheran: What Does This mean. In this book we made Keillor and Billy Graham honorary Lutherans.

Gkeillor: Can anyone clarify for me, Luther's Small Catechism?

Ellen: There are a few things about being Catholic I disagree with. I don't like the way they treat women.

S_nelson: Yes, I am one of the co-authors and we have a new one!

Elyn: But they do allow altar girls now...

Gkeillor: That's not our purpose here, Ellen, to discuss our differences with the church....etc. What does a protestant need to know about Catholics to understand them? That's the question. Thank you.

S_nelson: All good Lutherans memorized Luther's Small Catechism and had to recite it back for catechization, sometimes called public questioning, prior to Confirmation. It was a nightmare time for Lutherans.

Gkeillor: Are you sure, Elyn? Altar girls?

Gkeillor: S nelson, what do you remember of Luther's Small Catechism?

Gkeillor: How small is it?

Gkeillor: Describe the public questioning, if you recall it.

Gkeillor: Was this conducted by the pastor, I assume? was this on confirmation Sunday?

Booklady: The small catchism was the religious learning guide used it grade school for teaching children the fundamentals of their religion. It was a transltion of a work by Luther himself..

Gkeillor: How small?

Gkeillor: And what does the phrase "What this means to me is...." refer to??>?

Vonni: Confirmation was terrifying to me. The whole church watching while you squirmed, not knowing if you'd know the answer to the questions the minister would present you with.

Gkeillor: And what happened?

Gkeillor: Were you confirmed if you didn't know all the answers?

S_nelson: It took us two years of Saturday mornings before the minister to memorize it. Public questioning was when they lined up all the confirmands in the center aisle and pop-quizzed them on the catechism, its meanings such as What Does This Mean? How Is this Done? This is explained in lovely detail in our new Lutheran humor book.

Gkeillor: Did you see other children eliminated on the basis of inability to answer??

Ellen: I was frightened by the slapping at my confirmation.

Vonni: I fluffed one - but I mumbled my way through - good enough to get confirmed.

Gkeillor: We have an author present who is promoting a book. God help us.

Vonni: No one was eliminated - the Pastor gave you the answers ahead of time.

S_nelson: If you didn't know the questions, and you were 'normal, you might have to repeat a year of classes. If you were slow, the pastor would help you and confirm you. Lutherans are very forgiving of some of our own types.

Ellen: Although the slapping was not a real slap, it just made me nervous thinking about it.

Gkeillor: So the confirmands are standing in the middle of the church? or up front?

Vonni: It's just hard to remember under pressure.

Ellen: up front

Gkeillor: What was the slapping that took place? I don't understand.

Gkeillor: Catholic confirmation: confirmands are up front? Lutheran too?

S_nelson: It depended on the congregation. Janet's church put them up front like livestock at the fair. My church lined us up in the center aisles with the boys on one side and the girls on the other. We tried to behave but seeing those boys in the white dresses (gowns) and listening to their voice crack as they recited the meaning to the 3rd article caused most of us to lose our composure.

Ellen: If I remember correctly the slapping was just a tap from the priest while the confirmation took place.

Gkeillor: Have there been Lake Wobegon monologues in the past that struck you as uninformed, or inaccurate, about Lutherans or Catholics? That's our focus here, I guess. Any specific thoughts?

Booklady: The Small Catechim would be best described as an early form of Programmed Learning giving the piece of information and its meaning to the student immediately thereafter. The Student had to memorize the information each night after school and recite

Gkeillor: So this is a ritual slap, Ellen?

Gkeillor: Administered to everyone?

Ellen: Yes.

Gkeillor: And the Small Catechism has not changed over the years, Booklady?

Gkeillor: A light slap, Ellen? on the face? hands? back of head? back?

Vonni: Inaccuracies - ?? - your Catholics sound a lot like German Lutherans and your Lutherans sound like Norweigian Lutherans - very very different, you know.

S_nelson: Question from Lutheran Booklady: Was Ellen's Catholic slap a version of laying on of hands?

Gkeillor: How so, Vonni? am interestd to hear.

Ellen: I believe it was on the cheek

Elyn: I light slap to the cheek, as I recall.

Richard: In your monologues, you tend to overplay the guilt thing with Lutherans at times. Just because Catholics confess doesn't mean they aren't guilty.

Gkeillor: And is this still a custom?

Gkeillor: The slap, that is?

S_nelson: The Catechism has not changed, but the Missouri Synod Lutherans had to learn 6 parts and the rest of us -mainly Scaninavian Lutherans - only had to learn 5 parts. I'll send you a catechism if you want. It is vital to the true faith, of course.

Elyn: Yes, it's still done.

Vonni: German Lutherans preach fire and brimstone - Norwegian Lutherans are very forgiving. German L never never forget - N Lutherans make reality into a pleasant place they'd like to be.

Booklady: I havent seen one in more years than I care to count. But it was the basis of religious training in grade school during the late 50's and early 60's.

Gkeillor: There is a pietistic tradition in the Norwegian church, as well, I believe.

Gkeillor: Not to argue, but.....I think your ethnic characterization is off the mark, no?

S_nelson: More could be done in your stories about the Lutheran art of merging and splitting congregations and on the power of four-part music.

Gkeillor: So the Lutherans of Lake Wobegon seem darker, more guilt-ridden, than those in real life? Am I hearing this?

Vonni: The German Lutheran Church is VERY strict - the Norweigian - not so. More relaxes and forgiving.

S_nelson: The pietistic element is the remnant from the Hauge Synod named after hans Neilson Hauge, pietist escaper from Norway ca. 1850.

Gkeillor: Anyone care to comment on German v. Norsk?

Vonni: I have belonged to both G Lutheran and N Lutheran Churches

Gkeillor: The ones in Lake Wobegon are Norwegian, of course.

Vonni: Yes, I can tell

Gkeillor: Any other needful information before we close?

S_nelson: As a Scandin/ Nor Lutheran (100%), I agree. The Nor Lutherans are more forgiving than the German only because we don't want to make a fuss or create a ruckus about things so we let them go.

Gkeillor: Anyone else?

Richard: Guilt wise, yes. Protestant theology argues that many of us aren't going to make it, period. The guilt thing is a stereotype. Funny, but to a point.

Gkeillor: We have people lurking in the dim light here.

Gkeillor: Guilt is a stereotype, Richard?

Gkeillor: I thought it was part of Christian doctrine.

Gkeillor: Can you clarify?

Gkeillor: Well, this has been an interesting session, if only to learn about the confirming slap in the Catholic church.

Gkeillor: A wonderful little detail.

Ellen: I think most catholics represent a guilt ridden, holier than thou attitude.

Gkeillor: I will have to find a way to use it soon.

Vonni: I felt guilty for not making choir. Choir was mandatory in our school - but 5 of us didn't make it.

Richard: Do you mean Christian, or do you mean Protestant. John Calvin, John Knox were bigger on guilt, and it peaked in popular religious culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I don't think St. Peter and earlier Christians thought about it the same way.

Elyn: Perhaps the slap is but a strange welcome to life as an adult Catholic...

Gkeillor: I am very fond of the slap already.

Ellen: Garrison you should have went through it, it was scary. And it was hard to have to pick out a confirmation name that represented something other than just sounding good with your name.

Gkeillor: We're hearing a lot of dark reminiscence today, but the truth (I think) is that the church offers children an occasion for rapture that is otherwise missing in life.

Gkeillor: Rapture, of course, is a scary moment, as well as being rapturous.

Gkeillor: Any last comments?

Gkeillor: Did Catholics say table grace at home?

Gkeillor: Was there ever prayer by lay people in the Lutheran church?

Richard: True, to an extent, about rapture. But from what I've read about your early religious years, was it that rapturious? I remember a lot of bad times in church school, not doing my homework, etc.

Elyn: We never did at home, but it was said in school just prior to lunch - we also had a prayer to the Holy Spirit used for enlightenment before exams.

S_nelson: Lutherans prefer silent prayer.

Ellen: Yes, grace everynight. We used to argue over whose turn it was to say it. Now my dad does it at the family dinners.

Gkeillor: Do you remember the table grace?

S_nelson: Nor-Lutherans get raptuous when they hear Den Store Hvite Flok sung at funerals.

Lucy: Not only did we say grace at home, but whenever we out too -

Gkeillor: I've heard that Store Hvide Flokk is no longer sung at funerals.

Elmo: Yes, Catholics said table grace: Bless oh Lord and these thy gifts which we are about to receive from thy bounty through Christ our Lord. Amen. (Long A)

Ellen: My brothers and sister and I used to see how fast we could say grace so we could get dinner over so we could go outside and play.

Gkeillor: Yes, Richard, my childhood was full of rapturous moments.

S_nelson: Yes it is sung. My husband specializes in it. Grieving. Lutherans call him from miles around.

Gkeillor: Thanks for the correction.

Gkeillor: The title (Norwegian) is The Great White Flock, meaning the saints who have gone on before.

Gkeillor: Okay, small white flock, thanks very much for your insights.

Gkeillor: We will seek to be more accurate in the future.

S_nelson: Hjertilig tusen takk.

Gkeillor: Det var saa lidt.

S_nelson: Store means big in norsk.

Ellen: Thanks, it was fun!

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