Tales from the Usher File: Reminders about the etiquette of attending Mass

Long-time readers and those who know me offline know that I’m a Catholic. As a member of the very active Knights of Columbus council at our parish, I’ve been blessed to become involved in a number of our church functions, one of the primary being that I’m a team captain of our parish Ushers. You know: the guys who direct folks to open seating (when needed), who pass around the collection baskets, regulate the line-up for people going up for Communion (or other special observances, such as ashes on Ash Wednesday or the blessings of throats on St. Blaze’s feast day), and generally respond to the parish’s overall needs during the Mass. I’ve been doing this for several years, now, and there’s something that’s been on my mind to write about: some of the generally unwritten and unspoken rules regard the etiquette of attending Mass.

There is no doubt we want people to come to Mass. It’s an obligation for we Catholics and, honestly, if the Mass is understood as it’s intended to be, it’s something Catholics will want to attend. They don’t need to be forced to come or threated in order to make them show up. That goes for the whole family, by the way, all the way from aged grandparents to newborns. Over the years, however, there’s been a gradual degradation of peoples’ behavior as they attend the Mass. I’m sure that’s not a surprise for Catholics who attend regularly but today I’m feeling the need to both call that out and to suggest what the proper behavior should be. This is just me talking, not an Encyclical, so take it for what it’s worth.

  1. Show up a few minutes early. Seriously, God is not impressed with the fashionably late. Neither is anyone else. And you’re not making a grand entrance when you’re walking in 10 minutes after the priest opened the Mass. At best, you’re being a distraction. But enough of that; get there early for you not for anyone else. Our lives have become far more hectic than our parents’ and it’s important to remember why you are there. You have come to participate in the sacrament of the Mass, to worship our Lord and God. Come a few minutes early and allow your mind to calm, allow yourself to set aside the concerns of the moment and reach to hear His voice. Let yourself live in the moment of the Mass and feel His presence with you.
  2. Stay until the recessional hymn is done. The people who rush to the door as soon as the priest passes their seat – or, worse, who take Communion and walk straight out even before  the closing prayer – are robbing themselves of the experience and the Grace that flows from Mass and our collective worship. It’s indicative of their state of mind during the Mass and that state is one where they’re looking ahead to the end rather than listening with all of their senses. Catholic Mass tends to last about 1 hour. That’s 1 hour out of 168 in the week. Surely God is worth that? I’ll extend this one to say that saying good morning to the priest as you leave Mass and to greeting some of your fellow parishioners are both parts of being members of the parish community that pay wonderful dividends outside of the Mass. Being a part of that community is a very rewarding experience and rushing out only steals that away from you.
  3. Show some effort at dressing for respect. Would you attend a wedding or a funeral wearing gym shorts and a beer t-shirt? Dressing up isn’t something you do just to look good when you attend an event, it shows a level of respect for the event and those attending. If your boss were hosting a dinner for visiting dignitary or corporate office, you might not ear a tux but you’d likely spruce up to at least business casual. That’s to show that you respect the boss or his guests; that you’re taking the event seriously and that you find it important. Well, you’re coming to join in the praise and worship of God. Surely, He is worthy of that extra care. No, no one is going to judge you poorly because you can’t afford nice clothing and, yes, being there is far better than skipping it because you don’t have your suit pressed. It’s the effort that counts and doing what you can is all anyone can ask.
  4. Save the chit-chat until after Mass. The priest is reading from the Word of God and imparting his educated and professional analysis of that word. He’s also commenting on current events. During the Mass, you are part of the prayer and one with the communion of hosts. Paying attention is not just a matter of respect, it’s what’s needed to get out of the Mass all that you should. We all know it is sometimes necessary to communicate with a family member during the Mass, and we expect that, but it should be extremely brief and definitely held to a volume low enough that only the intended recipient can heard it.
  5. Cell phones: Keep them silent! Either silence the cell phone every single time you come to Mass or simply turn them off. I’m a firm believer in being able to make use of advanced communications technology and with the new phones being effectively small computers with the attendant boot-up times lasting into 20-40 seconds before calls can be made, I understand completely the desire to leave the phone on during Mass. I do it myself, most particularly when I’m ushering. It is unacceptable for the thing to make noises during Mass. Period.
  6. Parents, your children’s behavior is your responsibility. Have mercy on your fellow parishioners. It goes without saying that young children lack the control of adults. They do not grasp the concept that there are places where they need to keep still and quiet, to say nothing at all of actually paying attention to the Mass. All of those things come in time and all of us in the parish understand that especially young children won’t have gotten to that point. All of that says nothing at all regarding the obligation parents have in setting the right tone and expectation for those young children and in delivering correction swiftly when needed. Those children won’t understand that when they come to church the rules about when they talk, how loud, and what they get to play with change unless they are told so, repeatedly, by their parents. The speed with which they pick up that understanding is directly connected to the speed at which they are corrected when they do something they’re not supposed to and how consistently they see that correction come. As I said, my fellow ushers and I are well aware that a child under 3 is going to blurt out comments or noises in Mass and they generally do so at a volume well above what people are supposed to use. That happens and it’s fine. The problem comes when the parents do nothing to let the child know that such behavior isn’t accepted in church. We also know that there are times when the child just simply isn’t going to stop. They’ve bumped their heads and start crying, they’re teething and cranky, or they’re just in the willful “assert my independence” mode, are examples. It’s up to you, parents, to pay close attention to this and to stand up with them and walk them into the Narthex or lobby or cry room or whatever space exists at your specific church. Your fellow parishioners are relying on you to help them in their worship by keeping the loud distractions to a minimum.
  7. Addendum to Point 6 for Parents: stepping out of church shouldn’t be stepping out of Mass. Or, more specifically, when your child has crossed the line where simple correction hasn’t been enough and you need to walk out of the main body of the church and into the Lobby, that shouldn’t be considered by your child as a license to engage in playtime. I think we can all see very easily how quickly a child can learn that keeping up the loud talk will get them a free ticket to Romper Room as opposed to having to sit still and quiet in church. Stepping out into the lobby should be an escalation of correction, not a release. I suggest that once you’ve escorted your child out there to the Narthex or the lobby you should take the opportunity to more precisely explain that they’re not to do x, y, or z in church and that you won’t tolerate it. Then, you make them remain roughly still and quiet while you’re out there and tell them you’ll be going back in once they’ve gotten themselves back in order. What you should not be doing is letting them run around the lobby and just plain old have a good time. That’s not the point and it will only make it a longer process to get them to the point where such trips aren’t needed.
  8. Parents, children’s toys should be seen and not heard. Young children should most certainly be allowed to have the occasional toy with them in church. We all know they’re not going to have the attention span to listen to Father’s homily and they don’t know the Mass well enough to participate. Keeping them engaged on something that will hold their attention while also avoiding loud outbursts is perfectly fine and toys and such are the trick. Allow me, please, to pass along the Ushers’ Suitability Test for toys in church.
    • First: NO electronics. Nothing battery operated need be considered. If it’s battery-operated, it’s out.
    • Second: only those art supplies that don’t spill are allowed, and what I really mean, here, are colored pencils and a very small number of crayons. Addendum to this rule is that your vigilance in the use of art supplies so that drawing is done only on paper you bring with you and take with you when you go is an absolute requirement. No drawing or scratching on the seats, in the hymnals, or any other printed material in the pews.
    • Third: “The Audible Drop Test.” When considering a toy for your child in Mass, take the toy into a room with a hard floor. Hold the toy out at your shoulder length and let it go. If someone in the next room heard it when it hit, you need to select another toy. Stuffed animals are superb for this kind of thing!
  9. Be a part of Mass. Participation in Mass is intended be just that: participation. When we speak of the communion of hosts and of the Church, we’re talking about you. We are glad you’re at Mass and we want to join with you in worship of our Lord. Speak the prayers with us and join our voices together in praise. Sing with us. Believe me: I have a singing voice that can crack pavement and kill small animals. Do your best; we all do! You don’t need to sing like an Italian Tenor to raise your voice with us in prayer.

Etiquette isn’t a dirty word and exercising a little of it will only make your attendance at Mass more meaningful and joyous. I look forward to joining you there.

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4 comments

  1. “Stay until the recessional hymn is done”

    Why? The priest has said ‘The Mass is ended, go forth …” Why do I need to stand around listening to 4 versus of horrendous 1960’s hippie kumbaya garbage?

    “robbing themselves of the experience and the Grace that flows from Mass”

    You only receive the Graces available at Mass if you stay until the last note of music has sounded? What about Masses where there is no music?

    And why does the line up for Communion need to be ‘regulated’ anyway? People can’t figure out how it works on their own? I suspect that the presence of the usher urging people forward sometimes encourages people to present themselves for Communion when they are not properly disposed to receive. I think ushers would be put to much better use by standing at the front discretely ensuring that the the Sacred Species is consumed and not profaned in anyway.

  2. Also, so that I am not totally negative, I largely agree with most of your other points.

    Attire at Mass has gotten completely out of hand. Last year most of the dresses at Christmas Eve Mass seemed more appropriate for a night club.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Manny. First, I said nothing about Grace only accruing at the final note of the recessional hymn. The Grace flows from God and at his mercy. As I said, I believe rushing out of Mass short-circuits the entire experience which includes the ability to be aware of that Grace. As far as “60’s hippie” music – sorry to hear that’s still what’s up at your church. Definitely not at ours. Do you have musical skills that could be used to direct the music to something you feel is more appropriate? (I certainly don’t. Just thinking out loud.)

    Second, to your point about the ushers. We are also watching for those who would profane the Host, as you mention. The list of things we do wasn’t intended to be exhaustive.

    Thanks again!

  4. Ric,

    I very much appreciate your comments on Mass, Holy Eucharist and dress code! In fact, I wholeheartedly agree with every point you made. Those have been bothering me as well (plus a few more but I suppose that it might get me carried away).

    Looking forward to future shout-outs of yours!

    VJ
    Roland

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