Mass etiquette: Obey rubrics, be charitable
By Nissa LaPoint
Photo by James Baca/DCR
It’s likely a familiar scene to Mass-goers.
Across the pew, one man strikes his breast to the words of the Penitential Act while a tardy couple with a baby apologetically stumbles past him. The majority prays on bended knees, but at the consecration, one woman slips out to answer a vibrating Blackberry. One sniffling parishioner clasps hands with another during the Lord’s Prayer. Others pray with folded hands.
Many Catholic faithful have fallen victim to and grappled with such liturgical conundrums and church faux pas.
As the one-year anniversary of the revised Roman Missal approaches, local priests and Mass experts discussed continued education and adoption of not only the new responses but its prescribed liturgical gestures with some added tips on Mass etiquette.
“I think the beauty of the new missal is a rediscovery of those practices, prayers and gestures that unite and that’s the whole point,” said Deacon Chuck Parker, director of the Denver Archdiocese’s Office of Liturgy. “There’s no real ‘individual’ when we come together for Mass. We gather together as the body of Christ. So gestures are meant to unite us, not divide us.”
The General Instruction of the missal—also known as “rubrics”—outlines the gestures and bodily postures of participants to make the Mass a beautiful and reverential experience, rather than a mishmash of private inclinations or arbitrary choices.
Its importance, Deacon Parker said, is traced to the ancient Latin phase “lex orandi, lex credendi,” usually translated as “the law of prayer is the law of belief.” The way Catholics pray, he explained, “Says a lot about what we believe.”
Acts of hospitality
Ask nearly any priest in the Archdiocese about the new missal, and he’ll report a “wonderful springtime” in the Church and a sincere embrace by his congregation.
Ask about unity of pious gestures and Church manners, and the answer varies.
“I think it’s caught on for a lot of people, but we still have a jumble here and there,” said Father Steven Voss of St. Joseph Parish in Fort Collins.
Punctuality to Mass is a struggle for some.
At St. Mary Parish in Aspen, Father John Hilton recommends adopting the old adage, “The priest should be the last one in and the first one out of Mass.”
Liturgy experts add that some have an acceptable reason for a late arrival or early departure. Deacon Parker said exercising charity and hospitality can minimize a latecomer’s offense.
These virtues should be taken to the pews.
“As C.S. Lewis said, ‘Next to the Blessed Sacrament, the holiest thing is the person seated next to you,’” Deacon Parker noted. “If we would view everyone as holy—as our brother and sister in Christ—we wouldn’t mind moving over a little bit to let someone in (the pew).”
At All Souls Church in Englewood, Father Bob Fisher said that to avoid commotion by latecomers, “The hospitable thing to do is to sit as far forward in the church as you can and sit in the center.”
There are some—perhaps the elderly and those with small children—who prefer the end of the pew. After Masses at St. Louis Parish in Louisville, Father Tim Gaines heard reports of elderly parishioner’s sore toes due to repeated trampling by those squeezing past them.
“We have addressed it in the parish and said, ‘Please be careful of the elderly sitting on the end of the pews,’” he said.
Parishioners may also show respect to others and uphold the sacredness of the Mass by dressing appropriately.
Father Andrew Kemberling saw a woman at St. Thomas More Parish in Centennial wearing a bathing suit and cover-up.
“I kid you not,” he said. “Instead of complaining about it, I wanted to compliment people for dressing nicely.”
He started “Dress-up Sundays” to encourage better wardrobe choices. If someone looks like they “just weeded the garden,” he said, he approaches a well-dressed person within earshot and gives them praise.
Old habits and renewed tradition
Just as poor Sunday dress codes take time to change, gestures take time to evolve, Father Kemberling said.
The Penitential Act is one example.
Former rubrics of the Mass—before Vatican II—had instructed faithful to cross themselves during the act, formerly called the Confiteor. This has been dropped in the ordinary form. But faithful have always been instructed to strike their breast to the words “through my fault.”
“The Holy See’s clarification said that striking one’s breast either once or three times is the acceptable practice,” said John Miller, associate director of the Office of Liturgy.
Genuflecting has also been modified.
Today, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops instructs participants to bow during the Nicene Creed to the words, “and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” Genuflection is observed at Christmas Mass and the solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord.
Before receiving the Eucharist, a bow is also recommended over a genuflection, although both are allowed, Miller said.
Mass rubrics don’t instruct U.S. Catholics to join hands, much less make any gesture during the prayer. Its origin is unknown.
“There is nothing in the rubrics to indicate that holding hands is mandatory. The adage has been if people want to hold hands, they can. But we should be respectful of those who do not wish to,” Miller said. “It’s not a practice that is encouraged.”
Last year, Bishop James Conley, auxiliary bishop of Denver, offered that ordinarily “the faithful fold their hands, in a traditional posture of petitioning, to signify the humility of our congregation before God. Other gestures, such as extending arms or holding hands, are not found in the norms of the Mass. That our gestures are different does not mean that one role is more important than another—rather it points to a diversity of parts to the body of Christ.”
Other parts of the Mass are not addressed in the rubrics, including when to sit down after Communion. It should be a time of quiet prayer. Practices vary between dioceses: some faithful settle in their pew after they’re done praying and others remain kneeling until the priest sits. In Denver, faithful tend to the latter, experts said.
However, the purpose of kneeling is to adore the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Father Hilton advises, “as long as the Blessed Sacrament is upon the altar or being distributed, my preference is people should be kneeling.”
Consideration of those still kneeling in the pews is advised.
In all matters not specified by the Church, Father Michael Warren, O.M.V., of Holy Ghost Parish in Denver said it’s important not to cling to unimportant habits unless there’s good reason.
“We have to set proper priorities” and observe the “weightier matters of the law,” he said, referring to a passage in the Gospel of Matthew.
With all considerations of Mass gestures and church etiquette, Deacon Parker suggests the following: “Let’s follow what the Church asks. Let’s have openness to where the Church gives us freedom, and let’s have charity with one another in all things.”