Common Wisdom: Mass Manners

Pushed to the wall, I would have to say that topping my list of why I’m grateful for my Catholic faith is its constancy. I am also grateful for its truth, of course, about which I become more convinced the longer I live. But constancy is key, that dependable core that holds when all else doesn’t, when life is in flux or disorder.

Constancy stands in stark contrast to change, which has been the operative word in the decades of my life so far. I picked up the phone as a child and heard an operator ask, “Number, please?” Today I am jostled on sidewalks by pedestrians preoccupied with their cell phones.

Neither averse to nor enamored of change, I happily hit buttons on the microwave but remember cooking without it and could again. With everyone else I ride the carousel, reaching for the ring of what’s “new and improved.” I am conscious, however, of the instinctive human need for what is steadfast, tried and true.

There is little sustenance in novelty; legions spend lifetimes searching for the why of their existence, for its purpose. I do not search, having found. In new places among unfamiliar faces I am instantly centered by a flickering red candle in any Catholic church indicating the presence of the consecrated Host. It is always home.

Some Catholics lost that sense of permanence, derailed unnecessarily by changes in practice that came unbidden, fast and furious, accompanied by an escalating din of dissenting voices challenging long-accepted rituals, devotions, and even attitudes.

The late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin expressed concern for fissures in the flock and sought resolution. But those who press for debate even after censure on theological grounds by the pope himself—ordination of women leaps to mind—reflect a hubris and intransigence not amenable to persuasion. The cardinal’s sincerity acknowledged, one is haunted by echoes of Rodney King, who asked, “Can’t we all get along?” to which the answer is often a resounding “No.”

Catholics will “get along” when they recognize that Christ not only gave us a Church but a pope. Absent submission to the Holy Father we are theological anarchists, a collection of squabbling siblings.

There are, of course, areas of flexibility wherein the faithful can offer recommendations with the objective of achieving or restoring harmony. Since Mass is our focal point, the place we all converge, it deserves priority. In the spirit of January resolutions, and with a nod to David Letterman, here are my top six ways to enhance our celebration of Mass:

1) Let those of us who wouldn’t dream of being late to the cineplex get to Mass on time; the hour is fixed and no surprise. Before Mass let priests adopt the custom of one I know, which is to pray in a side pew for at least ten minutes before he celebrates. This scene of reverence and preparation is more effective and instructive than most homilies.

2) Let parishioners not compete on a regular basis to be first out of the parking lot. God gives us 168 hours every week. Let us spare him at least one for worship, not excluding the Last Blessing.

3) Let the lector and priest in the sanctuary desist from reading the Sunday bulletin or other literature while the other is speaking. To avoid similar temptation let parishioners pick up the bulletin on the way out of, not into, church. Let no one in the sanctuary casually cross his legs and slouch in the chair as if at home watching Nightline.

4) Let every priest, unless afflicted with laryngitis, offer at least two or three sentences of commentary, at every Mass, after reading the Gospel. Let priests be responsible for introducing or reacquainting Catholics with names and brief histories of the extraordinary men and women who became saints and whose feast days pass now more or less unremarked.

5) Let the Sign of Peace serve not as a cue to hurdle pews, cross aisles, or otherwise transform an hour of prayer into a social event. Whatever our differences, we are already bonded by our common Catholic faith. Programmed fraternity is redundant.

6) After the Prayers of the Faithful, let the celebrant sit down. Let not the sacred Liturgy of the Eucharist compete with the exertions of parishioners twisting to remove wallets from trousers or money from purses, with the attendant jangling of coins into baskets. Only when the commotion is finished let Mass resume.

Modest proposals, all. But attainable with thoughtful, minimal effort. We enter the New Year with another chance to approach the celebration of our Mass with the most reverence we can muster.

I’d like to think my suggestions might help. Whether or not any are adopted remains to be seen. The truth is, whether they are ignored or implemented, I will keep the faith. I will remain in the pew. Call it reciprocal constancy.


B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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