The following letter was composed by a priest-friend (who attended college seminary with me) to his parishioners back in 2013. He is now deceased after battling some serious illness. I thought that you might like to reflect on the letter as I did. I will add some personal commentary afterwards.
Dear Friends in Christ,
Over the past several months, I have received numerous letters and concerned comments regarding poor manners at church. In one sense, we should not be surprised at the lack of proper respect and dress at church, because we live in a very casual world where many people have forgotten manners and discipline. However, manners, whether at Mass or in other situations, reveal the value we place on each other and God: think about the term “Sunday best.” With respect to our dress, we live in a society where even corporate America has changed to casual attire. However, some of those companies have or are revisiting this policy because of the psychology of dress: our dress assists us in the ways in which we behave. 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, particularly an expectant mother or an elderly person. (I was raised to be a gentleman, so call me old fashioned if you like.) Seldom do the words “please” and “thank you” echo in our ears.
While we may not be surprised at such a state of affairs, we should not condone it or lower ourselves to embrace this standard. Each of us should strive for better manners, especially “Church Manners.”
Therefore, as a Priest and one who was raised by good, diligent parents, I will present what I consider good Church 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 and beach wear are an inappropriate form of dress for Church. 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, we should make sure we 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 of us 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 don’t think our church even had a public bathroom, because we were taught by the Sisters and reinforced by our parents 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.
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 Blessed Sacrament in the Tabernacle. Also, please turn off the cell phones and [other devices], not only to give some undivided attention to God, but also to spare everyone else the distraction of a phone ringing or other electronic devices sounding during Mass.
In worshiping, participate in the songs and prayers, follow the readings and listen attentively to the homily. In all my Priesthood, I have been surprised at those “pillars” that never open their mouths to sing or pray. Parents should help their children: last Sunday, I saw a mother following the readings with her finger so her two young children 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 Narthex or to the Children’s Chapel to allow the child to 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 enormously distracting. Parents simply need to be parents, using good judgment and discipline with the little ones.
When receiving Holy Communion, always do so reverently. Remind ourselves that when we receive the Consecrated Host, we should be very conscious that we are receiving the same Lord who was born for us on Christmas Day; the same Jesus who died for us on Good Friday; the same Jesus who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday and now sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven! 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 glorified 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 a 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 or other items; otherwise, someone else has to attend to them.
While I am sure that this list is not exhaustive, I have witnessed all of these actions as a Priest. I do not want to seem cynical or condescending, but only teach proper respect for the Mass we love to celebrate.
Saint Joseph, pray for us, now and at the hour of our death!
(Former) Pastor, St, Joseph Church, Mechanicsburg, PA
Personally, I add the following to Fr. Ogden’s observations:
Please do not bring food and drink into the Church and pews. I have seen people entering Church carrying Wawa coffee cups and other inappropriate items. While someone may need water for medical reasons, other food and beverages break the Eucharistic fast (generally 1 hour) and are not to be brought into Church.
In a former parish (and recently here), as I was beginning to preach the homily at a Mass, someone actually began clipping fingernails in front of me. Can you imagine something more rude and distracting than to hear click, click, click, while trying to preach the Word of God? In Church? Really?
While I am not against people socializing (fellowship) when they see each other at Mass, please remember that people come to Church to pray and to find quiet time with the Lord. Please do not become a distraction to those trying to find quiet time and certainly keep the socializing out of the sanctuary area.
Remember that we come to Mass primarily to worship the Lord. Anything that was mentioned here is only meant to help all of us to remember why we attend Mass and always to do so with reverence and respect.
Fr. Ed Namiotka
Diocese of Harrisburg, PA