The Spirituality of pew seating

If you were offered a pair of free tickets to a World Series game and had the chance to choose between sitting in the first row behind home plate or in the nosebleed seats at the top of the bleachers, which would you choose?

Or if you were invited to a concert of your favorite singer and were given the choice of free tickets in the first row in front of the stage or in the last row next to the standing sections, which would you take?

True sports and music fans would not need much time to deliberate. There’s an obvious reason why front row seats cost far more than those far from the action. Where we sit is a sign of our enthusiasm.

These considerations are helpful to frame a discussion of where people choose to sit when they come to worship God at Mass. When people come to a church that is anything but standing room only, where they opt to worship indicates something about their attitude toward involvement at Mass.

Sitting up front is normally a sign of eagerness and excitement. Sitting in the back by choice likely suggests that the person is approaching more as a spectator than as a zealous participant.

If we consider the two places in which many commonly prefer the backseats — school buses and classrooms — we all know that the rationale is not so they will behave or learn better; it’s to get out of the easy sight of the driver and teacher.

What about sitting in the back row at church? Few of us, if we saw a pair of 13-year-old boys sitting in the last pew, would think that they had chosen that location in order to pray the Mass better. But does that same pew suddenly become a better location to pray the Mass the older one gets?

Some Catholics who are by no means literalistic interpreters of Sacred Scripture behave as quasi-fundamentalists when it comes to Jesus’ words about where to sit during worship.

In one parable, Jesus contrasts a proud tax collector praying to himself in the front of the church and a penitent tax collector praying for mercy in the back row, with only the latter leaving the Temple with his prayer heard. In another parable, Jesus describes that we should take the lowest rather than the highest place at a wedding banquet so that the host will say to us, “My friend, move up to a higher position,” and win us the esteem of all our companions. People have been fighting for the publican’s low seat ever since.

Once upon a time in heavily Catholic areas in New England, even our largest churches were standing room only at all Sunday Masses. To sit down anywhere was a triumph. But now even in our mid-size churches, occupancy is often less than 50 percent at many Masses.

There’s a choice where we can sit. And I’d urge you to choose to sit up front.

First, sitting up close to the Sanctuary helps you to pray the Mass better. The fewer people in front of us, the fewer the distractions.

Second, sitting up close to the Sanctuary helps the priest pray the Mass better. Few things are more Liturgically disconcerting for a priest than celebrating Mass over a grand canyon of empty pews at the front of the Church, making it hard sometimes for him even to hear the responses of people.

Third, as mentioned above, sitting up toward the altar is a sign of Spiritual ardor and love for God.

Fourth, sitting toward the front is an act of charity for others, especially guests. If someone comes in late and all the back pews are filled, it’s impossible not to feel embarrassed passing in front of others while Mass is occurring. Moreover, if a guest comes to church and sees people preferring the back seats, that’s likely where the guest will go, too. And if a guest sits in the back, it will be more difficult to pray the Mass well for the reasons of distractions discussed earlier.

Finally, sitting toward the front makes possible growth in a familial spirit among parishioners. Families sit together when they come to Mass; if parents and kids were to come to Mass and intentionally scatter to the corners of the church, it would probably be a sign of problems at home! In a similar way, if parishioners sit apart from each other throughout the church, it’s a pretty clear sign that they’re not worshipping as a family.

If parishioners were to decide to try to sit together as a family for Mass, it would make little sense for everyone to sit in the crying room, or back by the confessional, or even all together bunched in one of the front corners. The most logical place, architecturally and Liturgically, would be front and center.

As the parables Jesus mentions indicate, He does notice and care about where people sit and the attitudes with which they sit. In a consumerist age, many people are tempted to behave as if personal preference is the supreme value, but Christians know that pleasing God is. If people won’t change their seats for a good reason then there’s little chance they’ll change bad habits. It’s time to hear the Lord calling us to come up higher in more ways than one! 

Anchor columnist Father Landry is pastor of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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