Why did I choose the Catholic Church and not the Orthodox Churches?

A few people have asked me why I chose the Catholic Church over the Orthodox Church (or Churches, since there are several autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches).

Back when I was a Protestant looking for my lifeline, I actually started out researching the Orthodox Church first and was seriously leaning in that direction.

I read a few books such as The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware and Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Peter E. Gillquist. I even bought the Orthodox Study Bible and used it as my main Bible for a few months. I also listened to many podcasts, and became convinced that the Orthodox Church was perfect for me.

nikolai-doIn all of Tokyo there are only two Orthodox Churches, and they are both related to the Russian Orthodox Church. The one nearest to me is called Nikolai-do (officially, Holy Resurrection Cathedral).

I recalled how peaceful the sanctuary was several years before, when I stopped in on a weekday after I had sketched the beautiful exterior on a lovely autumn day.

At that time, a person at the entrance asked me to pay 300 yen (roughly three dollars) when I entered, and gave me a candle which I was to put in an empty slot in a candle holder where other candles were burning.

The entrance fee surprised me, but was perhaps understandable since this old church was a popular tourist attraction.

The sanctuary was beautiful, but roped off and inaccessible to the public, so I had to be content with standing in the small vestibule apparently reserved for visitors.

So this time around after a few months of a serious research, I decided to visit Nikolai-do on a Sunday morning as a seeker rather than a tourist. I looked forward to worshipping in that beautiful sanctuary, and thought it would be fun to be in a church where I had imagined there would be lots of bearded men like myself, so I would feel right at home.

As soon as I walked in the door, a man asked me to pay 300 yen, and told me to not go past the ropes, or go into the main sanctuary area where the members were, but to stay in the vestibule which was quite crowded with visitors and tourists. The vestibule was basically standing room only; there were a few chairs along the walls, but they were all filled, and anyway, you couldn't see what was going on in the sanctuary because of the crowd if you sere sitting.

The worship service (called the Divine Liturgy) was filled with beautiful singing, and the frangrance of incense. But I could not understand a single word of what was said or sung! It was clearly not modern Japanese. Maybe it was an old form of Japanese but I couldn't swear to it. It might possibly have been Slavonic, since I knew that this would be in the style of the Russian Orthodox Church.

That Sunday morning I felt very uncomfortable at Nikolai-do for several reasons. Over the years I had visited many different churches as an outsider, but always felt welcome. Even when when I visited a Greek Orthodox Church near my college twenty-six years earlier, they made me feel welcome, and I could worship with the congregation although I could not understand the langauge. But here at Nikolai-do in Tokyo, I felt a coldness which I had never felt at a Church before. Imagine demanding an admission fee from people who want to come and worship, and then barring them from coming into the sanctuary!

The culture in that church was very foreign to me, not to mention the language. I couldn't understand a thing about what was going on, and it went on for a long time, while I stood with the other visitors, not knowing when it would end. I lasted about an hour or so, and then went home while the Liturgy was still in progress. I think my tired legs could have endured if I could only understand what was going on.

Anyway, a few months later, I decided to give it another chance. I visited a second time and paid my 300 yen and stood on the outside, watching everyone on the inside worshipping God. This time I managed to stay for about two hours before I finally gave up and left -- again, while the Liturgy was still in progress. (To this day I have no idea how many hours the Divine Liturgy goes on at that church.)

At this point I gave up on the Orthodox Church, convinced that it was too unfriendly and too culturally foreign for me to consider, and started visiting various Catholic churches nearby. Although there are only two Orthodox Churches in all of Tokyo with one of them being on the other side of Tokyo and not easily accessible, I have counted at least thirty-one Catholic churches here, with at least five near enough to my home to seriously consider, so I visited all five. The culture at the Catholic Church Mass was much more familiar to me especially as an Anglican, and the Japanese language was also familiar, to my great relief. And the people were so welcoming and friendly! I never felt like an outsider. And of course nobody demanded that I pay a fee to come in the door, or barred me from entering the sanctuary.

I also shifted the focus of my research to the Catholic Church. To my surprise, I discovered that the official Catholic position was friendly towards the Orthodox Churches. When I had read Orthodox literature or listened to Orthodox podcasts, I often encountered great hostility towards the Catholic Church. Even on a pamphlet they gave me at Nikolai-do (I guess I had bought it with part of my 300 yen) there was a declaration that only the Orthodox Church is the true Church, and there was even a diagram showing how the Catholic Church and all the Protestant churches split off like small branches from the main trunk which they identified as the Orthodox Church.

On the other hand, in the literature and podcasts by the Catholic Church, I found that there is great respect for the Orthodox Churches, and that the Catholic Church considers the Orthodox Church to be part of the true Church, as one of "two lungs" of the same Church as they often say -- albeit a much smaller lung, at around 18 percent of the size of the Catholic Church.

And, as I mentioned in my main article "Why did I become a Catholic?h I discovered that the Catholic Church has stayed with the successor to the apostle Peter, which was one of the major deciding factors for me. Still, since the Orthodox Churches are considered part of the true Church, I could easily go over to that side with a clear conscience any time if I want to.

As a matter of fact, almost exactly six years after I joined the Catholic Church, when I was walking around the neighborhood of Nikolai-do, I suddenly felt drawn to go over there and have a quiet time of prayer in that beautiful environment which I had not visited in all those years since I became a Catholic.

During my frequent walks around Tokyo, I have often stopped in Catholic Churches for prayer in front of the tabernacle where they keep the Body of Christ, and always feel welcome as a member and not a visitor since all the Catholic Churches in Tokyo are under the same bishop. As a matter of fact, there is also a beautiful Catholic Church (Kanda Catholic Church) in the same neighborhood as Nikolai-do, and I usually stop in there to pray, but this day I opted to pray at the Orthodox Church.

As I walked toward Nikolai-do on that autumn day, I felt the old thrill from seven years earlier when I was researching the Orthodox Church and I had felt so drawn to its exotic beauty. My pace quickened as I started to entertain thoughts of what if I converted to the Orthodox Church some day, after all?

When I walked into the church entrance, a lady at a table next to the door was taking a donation from a visitor. I wondered if perhaps I had been wrong all along about the "entry fee" being mandatory, and simply walked past the lady and continued towards the sanctuary. But she stopped me and told me that I must pay 300 yen first. She was friendly enough, but the system itself seemed so cold and unfriendly. This was after several years of my walking unhindered into various Catholic Churches at any time for free, so I felt the disparity more keenly this time!

I fished out the money, received some literature and a candle, and proceeded to the small and crowded vestibule where maybe a dozen visitors were gathered, and stared longingly in my confinement toward the cavernous sanctuary beyond the rope barrier. I felt like an unwelcome intruder, a trespasser who was being closely observed. A man was talking loudly to a group of people about the various features of the church, and I was too distracted to pray there, so I left after a minute or so.

As I walked away, my former exhilaration was replaced with depression, and I determined to never visit that church again.

I'm sure there are friendly Orthodox Churches all around the world, and perhaps if I were living near one of them, I might have joined and become an Orthodox Christian. But Nikolai-do in Tokyo has unwisely put up some serious and unnecessary barriers. I hope someone who makes decisions at Nikolai-do will read this article and make adjustments in their policy towards visitors. Then perhaps they will see more visitors return regularly and become seekers, and more seekers will become members, and there will be more than just two Orthodox Churches in such a huge metropolis as Tokyo.

Why did I become a Catholic?
Part 1: My Story
Part 2: Part 2: My Reasons for joining the Catholic Church
Part 3: Other Issues which cannot be ignored
Part 4: Resources for Further Investigation

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