Editor’s note: This article explores a theme that’s been on our writers’ minds of late — Catholic fellowship, or the lack thereof. Last month Maria Garabis Davis asked the question “Why are Catholics so notoriously bad at fellowship?” and here Bill Kassel makes a startling proposal on the very touchy subject of talking before Mass.
My wife and I arrived at church about 25 minutes before Mass. Father was coming out of the confessional, welcoming some early arrivals.
He spotted us, walked over, and sat down to thank Kathy for her help with a project. Then we proceeded to chat: about the recent illness of his dad, the upcoming parish fête, sundry things.
Other conversations were going on around us. And as more people arrived, more exchanges began. A low-level ruckus was accumulating, the murmur that often precedes church services (of whatever denomination).
This pre-Mass din is a frequent topic of Catholic blogs or Facebook posts, and I understand why. Noise intrudes into the prayers by which some people dispose themselves to the solemnity of worship.
Priests often complain about these disturbances and try to quell the hubbub. At one church we attended the pastor scolded some women talkers in a forceful (and not very charitable) way.
It is often said that the time before Mass isn’t social hour. Casual conversation is for after church, preferably out in the parking lot.
While I recognize the irritation it causes and appreciate the concern about what can appear as disrespect for the sacred space — or even for the Eucharist — there is another way of looking at this pre-Mass chit-chat. Granted, the cheery greetings, voluble good wishes, and raucous laughter can reach inappropriate levels. Nevertheless, I think such human sharing is important.
This is the time when you cross paths with people you see at few other times during the week (if at all). And even when interaction consists of nothing more than a How’s-it-goin’-Fred? you’re engaged in a moment of connection that reflects a sense of Christian community.
The most important fact about this casual contact is that it occurs at church, home ground of religious identity. You’re not just meeting neighbors, you’re meeting fellow parishioners, the people with whom you share a common commitment to a common faith tradition.
That everyone is present at Mass — and has their presence acknowledged in a visible, social way — expresses mutual support and encouragement. You’re telling each other: “Glad to see you… here.”
This is no small blessing in a time when faith is discouraged by most of society’s institutions and Catholicism is under relentless assault.
But, couldn’t this vital interaction take place after Mass?
Not really. After Mass everybody is on their way to someplace else. My wife and I usually attend the Saturday evening vigil liturgy, so afterward the focus is dinner.
I would urge those involved in the social hubbub to be considerate of people spending pre-Mass time in spiritual preparation. They’re our fellow parishioners too, and their intention is worthy of respect. A bit less hub and bub would go a long way toward easing parish friction. And it would help to dispel the unfortunate (and erroneous) impression of taking the Eucharistic Presence less than seriously.
But also, I would urge the meditatively inclined to be a bit more tolerant. Let me draw an analogy…
Another parish in our area places a printed note in each of its pews addressing a similar source of distraction: noisy children. The note points out that as disruptive as the kiddies can be, they are children after all, and we do wish them to be at church so that the habit of regular attendance is firmly implanted. (Naturally, parents must make an effort to maintain control.)
I think that little message in the pews expresses an insight that’s very wise, and I would like to see a comparable acceptance of the pre-Mass human sharing I describe. It would be even better if those who are put off by the hubbub joined in, at least now and then.
Don’t worry, once Father starts the procession and Mass gets underway, people settle down. Meanwhile, there’s something very important going on — even if it doesn’t look or sound that way.
Our Protestant brothers and sisters would call it fellowship. If you prefer, you can think of it as a sort of non-liturgical communion.
It’s really a very Catholic idea.
And it matters.