This piece has been a while in the making—Maggie and I have noticed and talked about what we, at least, perceive to be an increasing lack of respect being shown in church before Mass. Just today a friend of mine described his displeasure with the pre-Mass hubbub recently when he was trying to engage in some quiet prayer to prepare for the liturgy. The antics he described going on around him before Mass unfortunately are not the exception in some parishes, but have become the rule—guys catching up on sports events, ladies catching up on family events, you name it—a wide variety of kibitzing, with even louder discussions echoing into the sanctuary and nave from the narthex or gathering space outside.
As Catholics, we speak often of “The Church,” as well as of “the church,” where the Big “C” Church is the mystical Body of Christ, founded by Christ—those of us on earth, the souls in purgatory and those in heaven. The small “c” church, the edifice, is the facility in which we pray and worship—the house of worship. In our Catholic churches, we have located near or within the sanctuary1—the area including the altar and places for the clergy—a tabernacle which houses the Real Presence of Jesus Christ—the Holy Eucharist—His Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who came down from heaven to suffer the most horrific torture and ignominious death so that He might redeem us sinners; God, the utmost Perfection, Love and Infinite Good, is there with us, physically. Those aren’t just wafers in the tabernacle—it’s Jesus, the Messiah, for crying out loud. (For more information, take a look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1373 – 1381.)
Now, how would most of us likely behave in front of some high profile dignitary, such as His Holiness, Pope Francis, or some secular leader? If they invited us in for an audience, would we be idly chatting with the people next to us about how the kids’ soccer season is going, where we got our hair done, or what’s for dinner? For most of us the answer would be a resounding “No!” It’s not polite, and it doesn’t accord them the dignity and respect owed to them. In a word, it’s boorish, at best, if not just plain insulting. So why does it often feel like we’re seated at Sports Authority Stadium when we arrive early for some Masses?
Perhaps it’s because we’ve forgotten about the actual, Real Presence of Christ being in our midst. Or maybe it’s due to the joy we feel at seeing a friend or family member and relishing the opportunity to catch up with them socially. There probably are any number of reasons we might cite collectively for this kind of behavior, but they’re just excuses—excuses for not maintaining dignified, respectful attitudes and behaviors. Some folks get it, though. At St. Mary’s Cathedral in Nebraska, the faithful quietly kneel or sit and pray before Mass—no socializing—and after Mass, 99% of them return to their knees for silent prayers of Thanksgiving after the recession out. In another parish within our own diocese, the lights prior to Mass are dimmed and only brought up to full strength upon the procession in. At Our Lady of Guadalupe in Colorado Springs, and Our Lady of Mt Carmel in Littleton (Latin Mass), the Holy Rosary is recited before Mass. In all of these examples, there is an air of reverence and one feels the presence of God in the church with a small “c.”
It is not the introverted accountant in me suggesting this. Mass takes up only about an hour a week—we can catch up with friends and family at the after-Mass social gathering for coffee and donuts—let’s let one another have some quiet time before Mass to prepare to receive the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior, showing respect to Jesus and to our neighbors.
1 - Sanctuary, a holy place where God is present. In the wilderness, this was the tent of meeting or the tabernacle; in the time of Solomon, it was the temple at Jerusalem. There were, however, degrees of holiness in the temple. A few steps up from the court was the holy place, which was separated from the court by a hanging curtain. Only priests were allowed in the holy place. A few more steps and a curtain separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies, where only the high priest was allowed. Sometimes the entire temple is called the sanctuary; at other times “sanctuary” means only the Holy of Holies Buchanan, G. W. (2011). In M. A. Powell (Ed.), The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary (Revised and Updated) (Third Edition., p. 919). New York: HarperCollins.