What to do at Mass?
So once you get to mass, what do you do? Well, it’s helpful to think of Mass as you would a dinner party. Here are five tips that will make it go well.
1. Get There
Try to arrive about 10 minutes or so before the start of the Mass.
This allows you plenty of time to greet others and it gives you some time to center yourself and meditate. There may be some churches where parishioners are urged to greet one another and talk. Mass is about celebrating relationships both with God and with your fellow Mass-goers, so it’s nice to be able to catch up with people before you get started. Think of it like a birthday dinner for a good friend: you wouldn’t want to walk right in when the dinner starts. You’d want to come by early, wish your friend a happy birthday, and then chat with your other friends at the party before dinner starts. If you don’t come to Mass early, it’s like missing cocktails: sure, you can do it, but it’s a lot less fun.
If you are a regular, be mindful of new parishioners and visitors. Welcome them into our larger family just as God welcomes every one of us.
If you’re running late, you have a lot of options. First off, there are later Masses at just about every church. Check out your local diocese’s website or www.masstimes.org to find out what times Masses start. However, if you’ve really got to go to this Church for this Mass, just be sensitive to the flow of the service-try to hang in the doorway or in the back of the Church until a convenient time to quickly find a spot. Again, it’s a lot like a dinner party: if the host is giving a speech, you don’t want to walk up to your seat and distract everyone.
It’s always better to go to Mass than to not go to Mass, but sometimes it’s best just to reschedule. If you’re running late because of totally unavoidable delays-and this is the only Mass you can attend-then you can still receive communion even if you come to Mass after the Gospel is read (which happens about halfway through the service). If you could have come to Mass earlier and just didn’t though, Catholics consider it a sin, simply because you’re treating Mass like a job to get done and ignoring the importance of your relationship to God and your community. After all, if your friend were having that birthday party and you barged in 45 minutes late, shook her hand, gave her a hot dog you bought at the 7-11, and then stormed out again because you had something else to do, your friend would probably wonder why you came at all. The same is true for Mass.
2. Getting in the Door
A) Walking into the church
As you enter the church, a member of the parish may greet you, and someone might hand you a song sheet, encouraging you to sing. Any Christian community should welcome newcomers, but it’s just as important that you allow yourself to be welcomed. If you march into the rear pew, look really solemn, and then march right out again, you’re not exactly making it easy for people to get to know you. If folks don’t talk to you, check your breath, use a breath mint if necessary, and then shake someone’s hand and say hello. Mass is a lot more meaningful if you know the people you’re going to Mass with.
B) Holy Water
The Baptismal Font or some dispenser of “holy water” is located near the entrance in most churches. Catholics dip their fingers in the water and make a sign of the cross. The water reminds them of the sacrament of Baptism and unites them with Christ, who said “all you who are thirsty, come to the water.” The water is called “holy” simply because it is blessed.
3. Get Thee to a Pew
Catholics are a respectful lot. So before entering your pew, be sure to bow or genuflect as a sign of respect for what’s before you. It might be a little odd, but just think of it like having to kiss your grandmother on both cheeks instead of just one.
The rules are actually pretty simple:
A: WHEN TO GENUFLECT:
- When you pass the tabernacle, which is a box usually in the front of the Church that contains the Blessed Sacrament. This shows respect to the presence of Christ contained in the Tabernacle.
- At the beginning of mass, as you sit down, directing your genuflect towards the tabernacle, if it contains the Blessed Sacrament. You will know if it contains the Blessed Sacrament because a candle will be lit right next to it, or because you asked someone, or because you are God. The candle thing is probably easiest.
- At the end of Mass, as Mass-goers leave their seat, directing the genuflection towards the tabernacle if it contains the Blessed Sacrament. (There is no need to genuflect before or after receiving communion.)
B: WHEN TO BOW
- When facing the altar, if there is no tabernacle behind it, or if the tabernacle does not contain the Blessed Sacrament.
- If you have to cross in front of the altar as a lector or a speaker.
- If you’re Catholic and choose to receive Communion, you also need to bow before receiving communion in most places.
To genuflect, drop to your right knee to the floor in a solemn, slow way. Go as close as you can if you don’t think you can do that-while God may appreciate your sacrifice, fellow Mass-goers probably won’t enjoy the ambulance that will come to pick you up if you bust your knee out backwards.
4. WAKE UP AND SMELL THE INCENSE
The mass is not like the movies, where you passively sit and watch, and it isn’t even like a melodrama, where you get to cheer and boo on cue. Even if some Masses, like Palm Sunday, may seem like a melodrama, Mass-goers are not an audience. They’re active participants who make the liturgy happen. At most masses, it’s important that a community of believers is present. A priest is necessary for a Mass, but so are the Mass-goers! The words and actions of Catholics at Mass are an active form of prayer, and a real chance to build a relationship with those around them and with God. For Catholics, Mass is a lot of things at once: it’s a re-enactment of Christ’s suffering and death, a celebration of community, and the chance to connect with the real presence of Christ’s body and blood. Not only is your participation vital to making all of that happen, but it also will make your experience of the Mass much more exciting.
5. Mass Manners
Mass is like any social event. It’s considered good form to be attentive to those around you and bad form not to. So, unless you expect a call from God, it’s a good idea to keep the cell phones and beepers turned off (or set to vibrate if you have an emergency situation). You might try leaving your cell phone at home, unless you’ve already become so addicted to it you’d shrivel up. If the room is available, you might take your crying baby to the “cry room” where you can see the Mass but not disturb others or simply take him or her outside. It’s just like if your friend were giving a speech at a big dinner, save for his retirement. Sure, you want to hear the speech, but if your kid is crying really loud it hurts it for everyone.
Mass is actually not that hard. Just follow along with what other folks do, be respectful of traditions, and try to enjoy it. After all, the dinner party isn’t only for Jesus. It’s also for you.
Jeff Guhin, Jennifer Nestojko, Mike Hayes