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Appropriate Behavior in Church

  • FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS

I am a senior citizen. Lately, I have been appalled at the way people act in Church, how they dress and how they pay attention to the Mass. It certainly is not the way it was when I grew up.

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Actually, I have received several letters over the past few weeks concerning poor manners at church, even one from a new immigrant to our country. In one sense, we should not be surprised at the lack of proper manners and dress at church. After all, we live in a society where people pierce their various body parts — eyebrows, noses and tongues — just like the farmers do with their animals (although even they were spared tongue piercing). Many companies now have "casual Friday" where male employees no longer have to wear suits and ties and women employees, suits or dresses; however, The Wall Street Journal recently noted that many employees are now looking more like slobs on "casual Friday" and consequently approaching their work like slobs. More and more, I see casual attire at weddings and funerals, which were always considered "dress-up" events. Many people have lost all sense of basic politeness, like holding the door open for someone, especially a lady, or offering a seat on the Metro for a lady, especially an expectant mother or an elderly person. (I was raised to be a gentleman, so call me a chauvinist or old fashioned if you like.) Seldom do the words please and thank you echo in our ears. Yes, we should not be surprised if such a lack of manners overflows into our churches.

While we may not be surprised at such a state of affairs, we should not condone it or lower ourselves to it. In regard to church, each of us should strive for good "Mass Manners," and parents especially should make sure they are teaching their children good Mass Manners.

Therefore, as a priest and one who was raised by good, diligent parents who remembered the days when men always wore a coat and tie to church and ladies were expected to wear a hat and gloves, I will present what I consider good Mass Manners.

First, let us start at how we prepare for Mass. People should dress appropriately. In our society, we still consider coat and tie for men and dresses or suits for women appropriate attire for weddings, for special parties (even Christmas parties) and certainly for meeting dignitaries, like the pope or the president. We should then dress in the same way to meet our Lord, present in the holy Eucharist. Granted, perhaps in the summer we could be a little more casual, but we can still be neat, clean, and properly clothed. Frankly, shorts should be worn only by very young children; T-shirts should be kept for picnics; spandex pants and tights should be reserved for exercise; and halter tops should be burned. In deciding what to wear, we should be thinking, "I am dressing to meet my Lord and to participate in the mystery of my salvation."

Before leaving home, parents should make sure the children go to the bathroom. People going in and out of the pews during Mass for the bathroom is distracting. Granted, there are legitimate reasons for having to use the bathroom during Mass. However, I think that some children have just gotten into a routine: during the homily, go to the bathroom; during Communion, get the drink of water. Frankly, when I was growing-up, I did not even know St. Bernadette's had a bathroom, because unless I was ready to vomit, I did not leave that pew except to receive holy Communion.

Next, leave home with time to arrive at church before Mass begins, preferably about five or 10 minutes. Doing so allows everyone to have a few moments for prayer and to be ready to participate in the Mass. Granted, circumstances arise which will delay a family. Such a situation is different from the perpetually late parishioners.

When arriving at church, discard any gum in a proper container. There must be a special place in purgatory for those who stick gum underneath the pew. (Actually, no one should even be chewing gum in observance of the fasting law.) Those who leave their cigarette butts everywhere will probably end up in the same place.

When entering the church, be sure to make the sign of the cross with the holy water; this gesture reminds us of our baptism and does dispel evil. Before entering the pew, be sure to genuflect, an important act of reverence to the presence of our Lord in the holy Eucharist in the tabernacle. Also, please turn off the cell phones and the beepers; everyone not only can give some undivided attention to God, but also spare everyone else the distraction of a phone ringing or a beeper sounding during Mass.

In worshiping, participate in the songs and prayers, follow the readings and listen attentively to the homily. I am always surprised at those "pillars of salt" who never open their mouths to sing or pray, or the pew potatoes who read the bulletin during the homily. Parents should help their children: last Sunday, I saw a mother following the readings with her finger so her two young sons could more easily and attentively read. In all, everyone should joyfully and reverently participate in the Mass.

Parents need to supervise their children. Jesus loves and welcomes children, but they do need our help. If a child is fussy, then the parent should quickly take the child to the vestibule or outside and let the child calm down before returning. Children should not be allowed to rattle keys, drop toys, kick the pews or run in the aisles. These behaviors are distracting to the other people and especially to a priest who is trying to give a homily. Parents simply need to be parents, using good judgment and discipline with the little ones.

When receiving holy Communion, always do so reverently. We should be very conscious that we are receiving our Lord. If receiving on the hand, the hands must be clean and held like a throne for the Lord. After receiving, one should consume the Sacred Host before turning around to go back to the pew. Holy Communion must not be reminiscent of a cafeteria line experience, but rather of an encounter with the Lord.

After Communion, each person must give thanks for the precious gift received and allow the grace to fill our souls. How tragic it is to see people leave Mass right after Communion, not because of an emergency, but because they want to get out of the parking lot first. I can only think of Judas, who was the first person ever to leave Mass early. To give the Lord one hour — and usually less — for the holy sacrifice of the Mass is really not much of a sacrifice. I wonder how these same people would feel if someone left their own home in the middle of the meal without even saying thank you.

Finally, after the Mass is concluded with the blessing, wait until the priest has proceeded down the aisle before leaving the pew. The congregation should disperse only after the recessional hymn has concluded. However, before leaving the pew, be sure to put the hymnal back in its holder and pick up used tissues, bulletins, or other items; otherwise, someone else has to attend to them. (Once my mom, who used to help clean St. Bernadette's Church, found a used diaper left in the pew.)

While I am sure that this list is not exhaustive, I have witnessed all of these actions as a priest. I also do not want to seem cynical or condescending, but only teach proper respect for the Mass I love to offer. Yes, we live in a very casual world where many people have forgotten proper manners and discipline. Archbishop Fulton Sheen said that courtesy "is the homage of the heart to the sacredness of human worth" (Thoughts for Daily Living, p. 50). Manners, whether at Mass or in other situations, reveal the value we place on each other and God.

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Acknowledgement

Saunders, Rev. William. "Appropriate Behavior in Church." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.

The Author

Father William P. Saunders is pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Potomac Falls and former dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Father has been writing his weekly "Straight Answers" column for the Arlington Catholic Herald since 1993. The above article is one of those "Straight Answers" columns. Father Saunders is the author of Straight Answers, Answers to 100 Questions about the Catholic Faith, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald
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