How to be a perfect stranger

Tuesday 21 October 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — Kim Kardashian’s 34th birthday

During the summer months here on Cape Cod, our churches welcome throngs of strangers. Of course, we never refer to them as “strangers” nor do we call them “tourists.” We call them “visitors” or “guests.” The latter terms seem more polite.

The task of our year-round parishioners is to make our summer guests feel at home and among friends as they join us at Mass. When visiting a worshipping community other than your own, it’s helpful to know the proper etiquette. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I say this although I have never actually visited Rome and therefore have no idea of what they do there.

You know me, dear readers, I’m a great fan of that renowned maven of etiquette, Miss Manners. It occurred to me that it might be fun to write my own etiquette column or two. 

When it comes to church etiquette 101, we begin with the fact that we share the rules of proper etiquette with all Catholic churches the world around. This means that wherever in the world we happen to worship, we fit right in. Let’s review some of the basics of church etiquette.

1. It is considered impolite for members of the congregation to bring with them into church snack food, coffee, or other drinks. This applies not only to Mass, but also to such events as wedding rehearsals. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rules of church etiquette. Babies need their bottles. Toddlers need their raisins. The ill may need water, as might the preacher or the choir members. Just be discreet. In addition, there is a Eucharistic fast. Catholics are expected to fast for an hour before receiving Holy Communion, with the exception of water and medications. Don’t get me started on chomping chewing gum while at Holy Mass. 

2. It is proper for a woman to wear a head-covering at Mass, should she choose to do so. Nobody would ever be offended by a cute little baby boy wearing a bonnet. Males, though, should always remove their hats in church. The greatest offenders are youth and young men. Baseball caps worn sideways or backwards may be a fashion statement, but they don’t belong in church. A male removes his hat out of respect for the Sacred. 

3. For young women, there can be another sort of fashion faux pas. It’s those shirts and sweaters with elongated arms that cover the palm of the hand. These are fine if you choose to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, but not if you intend to receive Holy Communion in your hand. The same applies to wearing gloves at Communion or using a hand wrapped in bandages or set in a plaster cast. 

4. Then there is the matter of appropriate dress in general. Since the death of Joan Rivers, the demanding field of fashion policing will never be the same. Dress codes vary from season to season and from region to region. I hear that there are ever-vigilant dress code enforcers at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. I know of none on Cape Cod. The Cape is a summer resort area so the dress code here is more casual than in St. Peter’s Square. We call it “Cape Cod casual.” Being casual, though, does not mean being inappropriate. This applies equally to all men and women, but most especially those who have some public role in the Liturgy. Leave the flip-flops in the car. No bathing suits, please. Men, tank tops and frayed cut-offs look ridiculously out of place at Mass. 

5. In our modern etiquette-challenged age, we now have the cell phone issue. I must confess, dear readers, that I once forgot to close down my cell phone while in church. Of course it rang. How embarrassing. How to save face? Pope Francis is noted for making unexpected telephone calls (cold calling) so I pretended it was the pope on the line and asked His Holiness to call back later when I was less busy. I can only get away with that once. Nobody would mind if the cell phone of critical emergency personnel rang at Mass. But, let’s face it, a ringing cell phone or a texting worshipper distracts people from prayer. Some churches have actually installed cellphone signal jamming technology. Why is it those cell phones that do go off have the most annoying ring tones? And why is it that some call recipients seem oblivious to the fact that the sound of their ringing phone is echoing through the rafters of the church? 

6. Back in the day, churches had no rest rooms. Parents would question their children before leaving for church. “Has everyone gone to the bathroom?” People also learned to wait. This is no longer true. How many times does someone need to use the church rest rooms in the course of an hour? 

I’ll be back next week, dear readers, with more helpful advice on how to be a perfect stranger. 

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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