How to be polished and refined in church

Thursday 30 October 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — “Mischief Night”

While a student in high school, I met with a priest to inquire about the nature of seminary life. He told me I was like a rough, lackluster stone. The seminary, he said, would shave off irregularities, smooth out flaws, and polish me into a fine gem. The seminary sounded like a charm school crossed with a jewelry store.

A decade later, my deacon classmates and I formally presented ourselves for ordination to the priesthood. The ordaining bishop pronounced that we were “jewels in the crown of the Diocese of Fall River.” Over the years, others have said I’m a “real gem,” but I suspect they may have been implying something quite different.

Be that as it may, I now return to my musings on proper church etiquette. 

7. Mindfully cross yourself with the Holy Water upon entering and leaving the church. This gesture and accompanying prayer are reminders that you have all the dignity of a baptized handmaid or servant of the Lord. You have a right to stand before God in worship. Make sure the gesture does not give the appearance that you are merely clutching your pearls. 

8. Arrive at church a bit early. This allows time to pray privately and prepare yourself for Mass. You will get more out of it. Do not disturb others who may themselves be in prayer. Linger after Mass for a prayer of thanksgiving, if possible. Catching up on the latest news is important for community building, but best reserved for the church lobby or hall.

9. Genuflect towards the tabernacle by bending your right knee and touching it to the floor (if able to do so) when entering or leaving your pew. It’s a sign of respect for the presence of our Eucharistic Lord. Unfortunately, my days of proper and dignified genuflection have passed. I might very well fall over, so I bow profoundly instead.

10. If you arrive unavoidably late, slip quietly into a back pew so as not to distract other worshipers (This implies that those who arrive early should thoughtfully leave the back pews for the late-comers). Once Mass has begun, do not wander aimless down the aisle looking for your recently lost relatives. 

11. Don’t hog the aisle seat and force others to crawl over you, even though your family may have donated that particular pew in 1924. Just smile in a friendly manner and slide in or at least stand and let them pass.

12. I think toddlers should ordinarily sit in the front of the church, not in a segregated “cry room.” They can better see what’s happening. No one can stay focused while staring into the back of some guy’s overcoat. The baptized, even of tender age, have a right to be in the worshipping assembly.  On the other hand, if your infant or toddler flies into a tantrum, head for the nearest place of quiet respite. Don’t be embarrassed. These things happen.  Don’t wait too long. When the child is calm, return to the worship space. Little ones get over these episodes quickly. And those who have no small children, please don’t growl, sigh loudly, or give the “evil eye” to parents who are in this situation.

13. Respect the personal boundaries of others. You may yearn to hold hands while praying the Our Father or singing “Kumbaya,” but the person next to you may not. You may wish to shake hands or embrace at the sign of peace, but the person next to you may be more reserved or worried about flu season. The prayer book says that you may offer the sign of peace to those around you, not that you must. It is best to avoid arm wrestling while at Mass. 

14. Make sure to receive Holy Communion properly. This involves a worthy disposition in approaching the altar; a physical sign of reverence (like a bow); speaking aloud the word “Amen” signaling your preference to receive Communion in the hand or on the tongue; and consuming the Sacred Host reverently and promptly. Those non-Catholics present at Mass will find their own protocol printed in every “Missalette.”  Communion-time is for the reception of Communion, not for bestowing private blessings. Everyone, Catholic and non-Catholic, child or elder, is blessed at the conclusion of Mass. By the way, only those ordained are authorized to give a Liturgical blessing. 

15. Most churches provide special seating and other conveniences for those with disabilities. Don’t use these designated areas if you have no disability. If you have a disability, do use the designated spaces. Both are acts of charity. Do not block exits or aisles with stored wheelchairs or walkers. Avoid unnecessarily impeding the pace of processions. 

In a perfect world, dear readers, these would be a few suggestions that would make Liturgical worship more rewarding for all of us. Of course, we do not live in a perfect world. In the end, church etiquette is simply respect for others mixed with a little common sense. Be kind.

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

© 2018 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing   †   Fall River, Massachusetts