Is what I have to say to my neighbor so important that it can't wait until after Mass has ended?
Recently, I visited my father and stepmother in Florida. Both are very devout Catholics. They told me about their chatty parishioners, so I was prepared. At least I thought I was. We arrived about five minutes before Mass and filed into a pew near the sanctuary. In the pew in front of us, a couple were chatting animatedly with a gentleman who was sitting in the pew in front of them; and was turned almost completely around as his arm extended casually on the top of the wooden pew. My father and his wife wasted no time in shushing them. "Psst.. quiet, please. We're trying to pray."
I was slightly surprised that this little social gathering didn't even take a breath when realizing newcomers were kneeling behind them. To their credit, they did immediately stop chatting when asked to pipe down, but for the love of pete, they had to be asked? What has happened to the Catholic Church?
I remember when I was younger and the nasty looks we'd get from our teachers if we tried to whisper something to our neighbor. I also remember the first time I heard clapping during a Mass. I was mortified. It wasn't because I didn't like clapping or celebrating. It was because I was raised to see Mass as a very holy and silent hour within a busy week.
When you think of it like that -- that Mass is only one hour (and for us blessed with a Latin Mass, an hour and twenty minutes), is it too much to expect those who attend to be silent and respectful of that time?
Our society has become even chattier with the addition of technology. So not only do we have that old relic of a standby -- the telephone; we now have the Internet, email, text messaging, and even location-based social media services so we can let everyone on the planet know that we're at a McDonald's in Ashland, Kentucky and enjoying the Best. Fries. Ever. There seems to be an ever-increasing need to talktalktalk and let everyone know what we're thinking during every waking moment, everyday.
If you suspect I have a few drops of contemplative blood in my veins, you'd be correct.
But I'm also half-Italian; which means I can jawbone like a Southerner at a family reunion. However, chalk it up either to my upbringing or my temperament, I know there are times to be silent. Mass, certainly, is one of those times.
One time I was visiting my brother in Cincinnati. I had left to return to Columbus, but not before attending Mass. I visited my father's parish and arrived about twenty minutes early. I thought I'd spend some quality time in prayer and silence. I entered the church, and made my way to an empty pew. I passed two women a few pews back. One was sitting and the other was standing alongside the pew, in the aisle. They were chatting in normal voices as though they were in a grocery store. I thought once I knelt they'd at least lower their voices, if not stop altogether. Nope. Nothing was going to interrupt their little tête à tête. I don't think I lasted a minute before I got up and walked out. I realized I'd be really early for the only Latin Mass in town, and even though it was out of my way, I headed toward that parish. The silence was entirely worth it.
I think it says something about us as a Church when we can't stop thinking about ourselves for just one hour so we can focus totally on God. I include myself in this because I still have moments when I'm distracted. I also think that engaging in social conversation within what is supposed to be sacred space, sets a bad precedent.
It shows a complete lack of regard and sensitivity for our fellow parishioners. How do we know what is going on in someone's life? Attending Mass that morning may be the only peace they will experience for an entire week. Pouring out our heart to God in preparation for Mass is not easy. It is so much easier not to face our frailties, our shortcomings, and our sins. It is easier to shrug off the suffering of the world in order to focus instead on The Me Show. Placing the needs of others above our own while setting aside our own preferences is a beautiful act of worship that we can give God.
I know this is a huge issue. I have a great deal of empathy for our priests who realize the problem but not sure how to solve it. My father's parish had the announcements before Mass and there was an admonishment to remember to be quiet because people were trying to pray. (Good night. Didn't we learn anything in kindergarten?)
I have a feeling that the only way things will change is if a few brave priests spend time on the subject during their homilies, and when other parishioners start to do what my father and stepmother did -- pointedly reminding people that they're not at a baseball game.
I know not all Catholic parishes are like this. But I can't help but wonder that if a congregation cannot recognize that the time to pay homage to the mystery of our faith, once a week, for one hour, is during Mass - then when is that time?