day 7 – front pew catholics

We are amazing creatures of habit. Nowhere is this more apparent than among Sunday regulars and pew seating. One summer morning, our family arrived early at a park to help prepare for the parish’s annual outdoor mass. The first folks arrived and set up their lawn chairs at the end of the open space, as far from the altar as possible. They had already staked out the back row!

As I try to better understand my own experience of parish life, I’ve pondered the differences between “front-pew” and “back-pew” Catholics. In our early years of marriage and family life, we were firmly entrenched in the front pews because of our involvement in various ministries. It also gave the wee ones a better view, and had the quickest access to the basement when they were fussing!

The view from the front pews focuses on the inner workings of the liturgical celebration. Front-pew Catholics take turns bounding up and down the aisles and in and out of the sacristy making sure that all of Father’s wishes are fulfilled and no details of the mass are over-looked. The front pews house the lectors, Eucharistic ministers, altar server coordinators, and members of the Catholic Women’s League and Knights of Columbus – the committed elite of the parish. The front pews provide the best view and the best sound, if you want to see and hear what is going on in the liturgy.

(Next: back pews catholics!)

7 thoughts on “day 7 – front pew catholics

    • The observance is a personal one. Each parish will have some who stand out for their commitment and energies to the parish. Some do it humbly. Some exude a sense of the elite – being part of the inner circle.

      Hmmm, just thought of the front pews at major Ecclesial celebrations in Rome…… 😉

  1. I am still knocked senseless by the idea that there can be elite parishioners. I know that the idea of “active participation” has been deeply and tragically misunderstood, but I hadn’t realized that it also led to this kind of thinking. Since when did Martha count more than Mary?

    I wish you could attend the Mass I do for two or three Sundays. A deep, deep meditative silence plays such a wonderful role before, several times during, and then after Mass. There is never any chatter in the church because that would disturb those (i.e. everyone) preparing inwardly for Mass and those (i.e. almost everyone) giving thanksgiving after Mass. The friendly chatter begins in the car park and continues in the parish hall. There is no dashing in and out of the sacristy. The MC and altar servers do their work quietly and unobtrusively. The atmosphere is one of deep, deep meditation and peace. The children are silent, the vulnerable adults understand they must be silent, the babies are whisked away if they start to fuss, and the guide dog lies as good as gold at his mistress’s feet.

    I assume you are talking about St. Peter’s? St. Peter’s is a Basilica, so the normal rules–that clergy in attendance (but not celebrating) sit in choir–do not apply. I suppose the clergy and any guests of honour sit in front pews, but I have never had the privilege of seeing a major Eccleisal celebration in Rome. A dear young priest friend of mine was in a front pew for Midnight Mass because he was an ordinary minister of communion at it.

    • Dorothy I was interested with your comment on the deep deep meditative silence you mention before, during, and after Mass. I have never experienced this happening in my Parish. In fact our Parish Priest encourages us to talk to each other before the Mass is started, and then we welcome and greet those around us, with a smile, and a hand shake.

      We do have a few quiet times during the Mass especially after the Gospel readings. and after receiving Holy Communion. Then it’s back to talking after the final hymn.

      As for the elite in the Church on Sundays.. Some people think they are the elite..in my Parish some parishioners think they cannot be done without and fuss about to be seen. Also it’s hard for the older people to stand aside and let the younger one’s help too., Especially taking up the Sunday collections. They are all over their late seventies and one man is ninety!!

      Often a child will go up close to the Altar and look at Father, or stand next to him when he sits down. He says nothing, only smiles. Then the child runs back to the family. It is a beautiful connection, after all it is a family community celebration together.
      This comment of your bothers me, as I think what would Jesus do?(“The children are silent, the vulnerable adults understand they must be silent, the babies are whisked away if they start to fuss”.)

      As for the Martha and Mary comment, they should both exist in our Mass.

  2. It`s so good to hear about the different parish experiences. It`s easy to become so focused on our own community, that we forget that this great universal church of ours is just that….universal.

    Dorothy, I have to admit that I have never been part of a perfectly disciplined liturgical experience such as you describe. I`m glad that you have found a community whose style of worship nourishes you so well. When our five children were small, I would have been much more comfortable in the setting that Julie described. Different circumstances. Different needs. But, thankfully, the same Lord and God of all!

  3. Julie, what Jesus did was leave His disciples for short periods to go and pray by Himself. Of course He went to celebrations like weddings and dinner parties, but He also took time out for prayerful silence. He also attended prayers in the synagogue; I don’t know what it was like in a first century synagogue, but I have experienced reverent silence in twenty-first century Ontario synagogues.

    I’m not sure why a congregation–including special needs adults and children–being in a deep, deep meditative peace is disturbing. (When I was a child, elderly ladies very often approached my mother after Mass and congratulated her on her children’s good behaviour.) Sure my mother disciplined her children, but in my own community, I don’t think of the stillness as discipline: I think of it as peace. It is so deep that, as a matter of fact, the babies usually sleep through it all.

    Most of us chat 19-to-the-dozen afterwards and try to make the babies laugh with funny faces, etc. Mass is when we focus on God; the tea party afterwards is when we focus on each other.

    Perhaps the most dramatic shift between the 1962 Mass of John XXIII and the 1970 Mass of Paul VI is that the focus is no longer so strictly on God, but on the community. Obviously a church community must be a welcoming place, but a church community must offer more than a welcome or human fellowship: it must lead worshippers to an encounter with Divine Mystery. If it ceases to do that, it risks leaving seekers with a spiritual hunger.

    Heaven knows how many bored young people have rushed off after non-Christian types of mediation, having no idea that there is an ancient tradition of Christian meditation!

    I admire people who faithfully go to Mass week after week, forgiving their fellow worshippers seven times seventy-seven for talking when they are trying to pray, or allowing their children to chat or roam, or setting the pitch of the hymns too high for comfortable singing . But I wish everyone had a chance to experience what I experience at Mass.

  4. One last thing: I have never seen so many fake or embarrassed smiles and such stilted remarks as I have seen in churches before Mass (“Please turn to your neighbours and…”) and during the Sign of Peace. They are such a contrast to the real smiles and handshakes AFTER Mass!

    It is wonderful that the priest wants people to get to know each other, but there are natural and artificial ways of doing that. If you do it because a priest or a layperson with a microphone tells you to do it in the two minutes before Mass begins, it’s artificial. If you voluntarily say Hi to a new family in the parking lot, it’s natural.

    When the person at the microphone orders you to “Turn to your neighbour and introduce yourself,” do you ever wonder why everyone obediently does, even when many are clearly uncomfortable? The order is certainly not part of the liturgy. It’s even a bit bullying.

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