March 27, 2002
volume 13, no. 58

Ecclesial Etiquette

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Observations of Pew Mongers

    "I ask you in all charity to take it to heart for we all come together for a common purpose: to pray and to offer up as one the propitiatory sacrifice of the Immolated Lamb - Jesus Christ in an unbloody manner with the priest as the celebrant - the alter Christi to the Heavenly Father. We are not there to celebrate ourselves, not there to disturb or perturb others, not there to be co-presiders, but rather to offer Reparation, Thanksgiving, Adoration, and Petition in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass."

    With the promise of following up with a more detailed discourse tentatively titled "The good, the bad, and the ugly." As you can see it's been toned down a bit with the title 'Ecclesial Etiquette' because that is part and parcel of what it is: etiquette in church. To communicate this I'd like to share some of the observations we have made concerning fellow parishioners. We all have faults, and I am among the worst offenders. This note is really about the bad and ugly, but the good is also there, moreso than many might think - especially among those who attend Tridentine Masses. I hope to throw some humor in in hopes that the reader will be mildly amused rather than in any way affronted. If you are, I ask you in all charity to take it to heart for we all come together for a common purpose: to pray and to offer up as one the propitiatory sacrifice of the Immolated Lamb - Jesus Christ in an unbloody manner with the priest as the celebrant - the alter Christi to the Heavenly Father. We are not there to celebrate ourselves, not there to disturb or perturb others, not there to be co-presiders, but rather to offer Reparation, Thanksgiving, Adoration, and Petition in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Pew Flu!

    When I was growing up my mother taught me to avoid sick people when possible. So too did my Scout handbook. The reason was obvious: sick people are, after all, ill, and they are usually contagious. I mean sick like having a cold or flu or some such. Now life is full of disease - it's part of the refining process that will hopefully lead us to Heaven. Caring for the sick is a most worthy work of mercy that can gain us much merit before God. It can also help to teach us not to be selfish, because it enables us to see that there are people who are in a worse off condition than we are. Still, almost no one in their right mind would purposefully try to catch a contagious illness such as a cold or flu. Such reduces our efficiency for study, prayer, work, and of course, we become contagious to others. My mother taught me that bed rest is the best remedy, and one should be polite and not cough or sneeze all over the house. She even kept the dishes of the ill child separate, which seems like a very good idea. However, somehow this information has apparently not been widely disseminated. Hence, the first part of this deals with 'Pew Flu!' It seems that one encounters sick individuals, coughing and sneezing, hacking, and blowing and wiping their shiny red noses, wherever one goes in public. To try to make the world a little better place, and since I have a little power as a teacher, I have taken it upon myself to tell my students that they are not welcome in my class or laboratory when sick. I will most certainly excuse them; and I tell them that they don't even need a note - if they mention that they are sick, by sending an email message or something, I will believe them. If they're enrolled in one of my courses, they'll need to get the class notes from an attending student, and I will help them in that regard if necessary. It seems to work. I don't usually encounter sick people in my classes and laboratory, and I have a lot of students.

    On the bus/train however, which is a long commute for me (2 hours plus each way) the state of affairs is not quite so blissful. These places are often crowded and when a sick person coughs and sneezes on your head there is little that one can do. One could possibly turn around and make a little joke by saying: 'You make me sick', but it might not be taken the right way and could even be dangerous if it's a big fellow. In church however, where the holy congregate, one would expect better. But alas! Tis' not so. There are plenty of people who feel the urgent need to attend mass when quite ill. Perhaps they deem it a way to show that they really want to get to Heaven. And of course, I personally am endowed with some kind of magnetic property because they will invariably sit directly behind me. Even if I am in the middle of the pew, the unwell will clamber over dozens of persons just to sit behind me, and because of their illness they tend to lean over and in so doing will sniffle, snort, and breathe on my neck because of their illness. When this transpires, actually at most every mass, or so it seems, I'll attempt to stealthily slide away from the offender if possible, inch by inch, moving a bit each time we sit, kneel or stand, but if it's crowded that is not always possible. And so dear friends, one must ask, isn't one excused from the obligation when one is ill?

    I'm searching for answers here. Possibly the sick people don't know that they're ill. Maybe they don't think they're contagious. Perhaps they firmly believe that they're helping others to gain desperately needed immunity by passing along the germs (alà the classic movie 'War of the Worlds' in which the aliens sent to invade the earth finally died off because they had no earthian immunity). Or perchance these parishioners have a slightly devious side. Whatever the reason, invariably I catch whatever they've got, which means lost work time, lost teaching time, and a little bit more misery on earth. But worse, even though I try as hard as I can to stay clear from them when I'm contagious, sometimes my elderly relatives catch what I have. And this is serious; one who fell ill had to be hospitalized with flu and borderline-pneumonia for two weeks. Alas, I might be even worse off if I attended Masses where everyone holds hands. Thank God that aberration isn't practiced in the Tridentine Mass!

Pew Blockers

    But lest we dwell on unpleasant things, let us move on. There's the subject of what I shall call 'pew blockers'. These persons, sometimes individuals, couples, or even whole dedicated families, feel the need to occupy the spots at the very end of the pew, often in the pews nearest the exits. Pew blockers arrive early to claim these choice seats, sort of like scrambling to the ball game when one has tickets in the unreserved seating section. Often, the blockers will deposit various personal effects on the kneelers to further barricade the entrance to the pew. An efficient blocker will be a single individual who sits adjacent to the armrest at the very end of the pew. For example, consider that there are 30 pews in an average sized church. Indeed, it would only require 60 pew blockers to completely seal the entrances to the seating area and make it standing room only for mass! Actually I have seen events close to this happen at quite a few Catholic churches.

    Now when one approaches a blocker to try to gain entrance to his or her pew it can be a colorful occasion; akin to either a 'Laurel and Hardy' comedy sketch or a game of chess. There are a variety of responses; one cannot know beforehand what to expect. Sometimes the blocker will emit a barely audible growl or subtle grimace followed by grudging admittance to the pew area. Frequently they'll slide their persons over a bit so that you can only sit precisely where they were, on the hot seat so to speak. Occasionally, they'll stand up or move their legs so you can squirm by, which almost invariably results, at least in my experience, in my bopping some of the heads of those seated in front of us and resulting in annoyed looks, stares, and possible litigation. If the blocker actually arises and gets out into the isle so that you may pass, one had better be quick about getting in because there is no guarantee of a second chance.

The Late Won't Wait

    With regards to late arrivals at mass. Seems to me - fine and good if one stays in the back without making a fuss; it happens to the best of us. However, lots of latecomers will arrive through the back entrance and head all the way up to the front. Others will arrive at the front entrance and head all the way to the back. I guess they've got you coming and going, so to speak. Now concerning the aforementioned traditional pilgrimage I mentioned; yes, there was a problem with latecomers there too. There were hundreds of pilgrims and because of the small size of the chapels, several Masses would be said simultaneously, at consecutive intervals beginning at 4:30 a.m. I still remember one lovely young lady of about 18 who arrived in her veil near the end of the early Mass that I was attending. I was sitting near the back, and she hung out for a while, wondering what part of the Mass it was. When she realized it was near the end of mass and wouldn't fulfil the obligation for her, she scurried out the door to seek another.

Bless me, Father, for I have cut in line

    The Sacrament of Confession is another adventure in Church life, mostly having to do with the queue. Sometimes there's a clearly demarcated line of people waiting for the confessional, which is fine and makes sense. You wait in line, say some prayers, think about your sins, maybe hope Father doesn't go too hard on you. At other times however, some persons will start to sit down in the pews, forming a sort of grande line of comfortably seated individuals heading for the confessional. As one person exits the confessional, the first person in the seated line then enters. If what is transpiring is obvious, as it would be when quite a number of people are sitting in a line one after another, that's fine. Sometimes also, everyone moves up a seat each time a confession has been heard, kind of in the style of a production-line, but more often than not the people just stay where they are and if the Confession line was originally very long, then when only a few people are left, they are seated far from the door of the confessional and no one who has just arrived has any idea of what they're doing. In fact once I walked in when only one lady was seated and it was not at all obvious that she was waiting to go to Confession. When I innocently stood where one usually does prior to entering to receive the Sacrament, I knew I was in trouble when she immediately arose. And yes, she made me clearly aware of my violation, after which she started coughing and sneezing and blowing her nose.

    But wait, there's still more. It used to be that talking inside the church proper was strictly forbidden. In traditional churches that rule is still for the most part in force. But if one chances to enter a non-traditional church, the noise level once mass ends is often truly raucous. It's one big party of laughing and shouting and talking, and occasional shrieking by small children. The kids play games, hop from seat to seat, or move the kneelers up and down. The teens congregate for serious group meetings, hangout sessions, one-on-one discussions, and occasional heart-to-heart talks. But the elders are the worst. They'll bellow a hearty greeting to this one or that a half-football field away and round it out by asking how baby is doing.

No rest for the rest

    Though, sadly, most churches today are no longer sacrosanct refuges from merry noisemaking and gaming, one would think that at least a good night's sleep would be possible on a long overnight bus ride with fellow parishioners to the annual pro-life march on Washington DC. After all it's a long day of marching that is coming up, holding banners, shouting slogans and mugging for the occasional mobile TV crew or photojournalist. But no, at least on the excursion I took (which was my first and last, transpiring in January 1998 or 1999). It seems the kids and young adults had been saving their energy all year for this one titanic event. When I attended the overnight bus ride, it was a kid's night out of slumber partying /pillow fighting /nerf football contests run amok, and the offender's mothers were totally oblivious to the events because they were chatting rapidly and joyfully amongst themselves during the entire journey.

    Finally, concerning candles, which can be wonderful sacramentals. Real wax candles aren't a problem in most of the modern churches, because they've been replaced by the plastic electric twinkle lights that one illuminates by pressing a switch. Whether that is a good thing or just another indication of the sacking of so many traditions, I'm not going to venture here. However I can say that candles can be a problem, especially in the more traditional churches where there are still real wax candles and a greater practice of the old devotion of lighting a candle to the saint. One definitely has to beware. Take for example, the candles in front at the altars to Saint Joseph or the Blessed Virgin or the parish Patron Saint. Immediately following Holy Mass in traditional churches, these places are a magnet for the toddler set and it's often with their parent's blessing. One will invariably find a line of youngsters barely at the walking stage, sometimes accompanied by a parent and sometimes seemingly not, headed for the candle rack. They delight in working with the matches and the long wooden candle lighting sticks, the latter of which sometimes span nearly the entire length of the young arm of the little one. To actually ignite the candle will involve some degree of bodily contortion by the child, to reach the nearest available unlit wick, which is almost inevitably way back at the very top of the rack, and often he or she does not know quite what to do with the lit torch anyway. When the parent is present to render assistance, the procedure time for lighting match, wooden candle stick, candle, and dropping some spare change or a crinkled dollar in the offering box may be cut to 3 minutes per child. I usually say a little prayer with each safe conclusion; however, one can see from the numerous burn marks on the rugs, some of them rather large, that not each child renders a flawless performance of this task. Well, practice makes perfect I suppose.

    And so dear friends, the question is posed: what to do about the bad and the ugly? Perhaps the parish priest or Mass coordinator could say something or, if they want to be subtle, could possibly put a little friendly message in the parish bulletin. And yet, if more Catholics were conscious and considerate of others around them, perhaps they would begin seeking to truly love their neighbor by practicing what they pray. Oh, and one final note: Regarding confessional lines, and I am saying this half-seriously, might it not be wise to install a take-a-number gizmo to protect unwitting parishioners against persons who are etiquette-challenged? Yes, it can be a long wait, but what a wonderful time to spend in prayer in church in silence...unless the choir happens to be practicing off-key at that time. It seems rehearsing takes precedence over prayer and preparation these days. What was it I was saying about consideration?

Kyrie eléison,

March 27, 2002
volume 13, no. 58