Catholic Mass Isn’t What I Thought It’d Be — It’s So Much More

A young adult Mass at St. Dominic Church in Springfield, Kentucky. (CNS photo/Ruby Thomas, The Record)

I left Mass in tears again.

You would think that after attending Catholic Mass for four years now I would get the hang of it. That I’d have learned the secret handshake. That I’d finally fit in.

Now, I’m sure to many seasoned Catholics, the gestures performed throughout Mass are pretty simple. Just look around and do what everyone else is doing. Kneel when everyone kneels, sit when everyone sits, and make the sign of the cross when everyone else does. … Easy, right?

But for someone who didn’t grow up in the Catholic Church and only married into it, it’s not quite that simple. Every week feels like a huge, choreographed dance that everyone knows the steps to but me. And while I can logically see that each step is quite simple in theory, the sheer number of them and the speed with which they come leaves me feeling like I’m constantly tripping over my own two feet and messing everything up.

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I went through RCIA. I spent every Tuesday night in the parish basement for months, watching videos, taking notes, and soaking up all I could about what Catholics believe and why. I learned a lot. Like the fact that it drives our RCIA director absolutely crazy when a friend of his does the sign of the cross the wrong way.

It was just an offhand comment, and I know he didn’t mean anything by it, but I’m pretty sure I haven’t done the sign of the cross since. I’m too worried I’ll do it wrong and inadvertently make someone’s skin crawl. Silly, I know. But tell that to the massive amount of anxiety I feel every single time I take my place in the pew.

While everyone around me is worshiping Jesus calmly, I’m over here doing silent deep breathing exercises to control my rising heart rate. Focus, Brittany. One step at a time. Just watch everyone else. You can do this.

So, I tried to embrace other common Mass traditions instead. Offering the sign of peace, for example. It seemed pretty easy, straightforward … until I mentioned to a Catholic friend, “The kids were so cute today! They wanted to give everyone the sign of peace!” Only to hear, “Oh. Well, you know you aren’t supposed to leave your seat during that.”


This is so much harder than I thought it’d be.

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When I first started attending Catholic Mass, I figured it would be little more than a Catholicized version of what I had grown up within Protestant churches. Throw in a couple Hail Marys here and there, and it’s basically the same thing, right?

Not even close.

So much more than just a simple church service, Catholic Mass is steeped in years worth of history, tradition, and meaning, and as a result, it has a culture all its own. From the incense filling the air to the colors of the robes and the candles to the presentation of the gifts, every element is perfectly orchestrated to bring glory and honor to God and to help us better worship him there.

Sure, it can be more than a little overwhelming to a newbie like me, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful or important

After all, Mass isn’t designed to make me feel comfortable, to make me feel at home, or to ensure that I get something out of it — because Mass isn’t about me at all. It’s about God and the sacrifice he made through his son 2,000 years ago.

So, I ordered a copy of “Catholic Mass for Dummies,” and I’ve been reading more about the meaning behind the various parts of the Mass online. I’m memorizing prayers, making friends, and trying to remember when to stand and when to kneel.

And every week, I notice it feels a little more familiar. A little more like coming home. A little more like I’ve stumbled into my small part of something much bigger than myself and that God could meet me right here in the quiet sanctity of it all. And isn’t that what it’s all about? Worshiping God and encountering him here?

The next time you’re at church, if you see a stressed-out mom in the back row nervously trying to keep the kids quiet while also trying to remember if it’s left first or right first when making the sign of the cross, please know that I’m doing my best. I’m not going to do it all perfectly, but thank God, we don’t have to!