Avoiding making the minimum our maximum

I always appreciate feedback from Anchor readers, critical and positive. As a columnist I hope to make people think and engage them in dialogue and I’m happy when that conversation spills over into email exchanges — provided, I’d say, that the respondents show basic Christian civility and have the integrity to sign their name. 

I received a lot of feedback from my August 15 column “The Spirituality of Pew Sitting” in which I argued that where we choose to sit at Mass — just like where we choose to sit at sporting events, concerts, in classrooms and on buses — can reveal a lot about our eagerness for what is taking place. Sitting up front, I wrote, normally is a sign of greater engagement, enthusiasm and excitement and I urged readers, in churches that are not packed to capacity, to choose to sit together up front in order to pray with fewer distractions, help the priest pray better, bring about a familial spirit, be charitable to latecomers, and set an example for newcomers. 

Most of the feedback was very positive. Several thanked me because it put words to their experience that Mass at the parish is more a “diaspora of individualism” than “one body, one Spirit in Christ.” Others said it helped them to pray and think about where they sit rather than plop themselves down wherever out of unexamined habit. 

A few ushers wrote me about some exceptions they’ve seen with those who need to stand in the back because “knee, back or buttocks” problems make it too difficult for them to sit anywhere. 

A couple of emails were critical. I’d like to share one of them because it highlights something important not just for this conversation but for the overall mission of the Church.

“I read your Anchor column a few times. It bothers me more each time I read it,” one honest reader wrote. “I am a back-bencher myself and don’t intend to move. I would think God and clergy would be glad to have any seat occupied. It’s hard for me to imagine that God is particularly concerned with who sits where at Mass or that where you sit says something about your faith, commitment or spirituality. Seating location seems a most silly measure of faith.

“Being a committed Catholic is, at times, not easy. Having clergy suggest that where you sit at Mass might be a problem is yet another, admittedly trivial, obstacle to thoughtful, active practitioners discovering the open, welcoming, inclusive aspects of our faith, our Church and our calling. Perhaps a better message to deliver via The Anchor would be ‘Come! Join us! We don’t care where you sit just as long as you are here.’” 

I replied to this reader, “Thanks for writing! I respectfully think you missed the point of the column, which was that it’s better to sit together as a family up front for all the reasons given, not that it’s sinful to sit in the back, in a similar way that it’s better to come well-dressed to Church than to come in shorts and tank-tops. It’s the difference between good and better. 

“If you’re a dad and had your kids come to the same Mass as you, would it not matter to you in the least if they sat with you or instead sat as far as possible away from you? My guess would be that you’d first be happy your kids were at Mass, but you’d also hope for more. That’s what the column was about. 

“From the point of view of clergy, we do want more than people merely coming to Mass. The minimum should never become the maximum. We want people growing in faith, and not merely as individuals, but as a family of faith. That’s what a parish is meant to be. And when the people of a parish don’t get to know each other, wave the sign of peace to each other, don’t share in each other’s joys or disappointments, and other similar behaviors, there’s much room for improvement. 

“We are saying, ‘Come! Join us!’ but we want people to be embraced by a community that welcomes them as a family rather than a bunch of relatively unenthusiastic individuals who happen to show up for Mass at the same time, because if that latter happens, many of these returnees will be ‘one and done.’ Unwelcoming communities develop when people come to worship as islands instead of brothers and sisters.

“I’d respectfully urge you to beware of a Spirituality of consumerism, putting personal preferences above objective good or what is objectively better. I’d also encourage you to ask the Lord in prayer whether He really has no opinion whatsoever about where you sit at Mass. Let’s pray for each other.”

The reader emailed, “Thanks for the thoughtful response,” but didn’t engage the conversation further. 

I’d like to highlight one thing from our conversation: the “Spirituality of pew sitting” is connected to the larger question of whether God, the Church and clergy ought to be satisfied with people merely coming to Mass. We know that good teachers hope that their students do more than show up for class and good coaches have higher goals than just putting players on the field. Should the Church’s expectations really stop at attendance? 

The Church is a vocational school charged by the Lord with forming a communion of saints — men and women, boys and girls, of heroic virtue — and getting people through the door is just the first step in the journey. The Church must also lead people, literally and symbolically, closer to the Lord, and where we sit and how we pray the Mass are a small but key part of that pilgrimage toward the Sanctuary.

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

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