And if these things seem to you to be reasonable and true, honour them; but if they seem nonsensical, despise them as nonsense.
—St. Justin Martyr
“Dad, I’ve gotta’ go.” It’s a phrase you know well if you have kids, and it’s rarely uttered at opportune moments. Usually, it’s on the interstate, two minutes out from the last rest stop, or just as you’re seated for the first reading at Mass – almost like clockwork. “A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah,” the lector announces; “I really gotta’ go,” your preschooler pleads.
In medical lingo, it’s called (appropriately) urgency, and it can have a variety of etiologies. In the parenting biz, however, we’ve learned that it can simply be a bid for freedom, so we temporize and probe for clues. “Can’t you wait until the homily?” you whisper. The head shakes, back and forth – better not risk it. As you stumble out of the pew with your child, you resolve to give that talk again about preparing for church, which includes going to the bathroom before leaving the house. But will this happen again? Probably next week? You bet!
We’re past that particular stage of parenting, but we observe the comings and goings of other families every Sunday morning – the negotiations in the pew, the looks from spouse to spouse (“Are you taking her this time?”), the shrugging grins to everyone else trying to focus. It got me thinking: Was this a thing when I was growing up in the Presbyterian Church? I can’t remember exactly, but surely it’s universal. There’s no reason Catholic children should have a monopoly on miniscule bladders and short attention spans, so I’m pretty certain our separated brethren know the mid-service dash-to-the-back with youngsters the same as us – although I imagine the probing pre-inquiries might be a bit different (“Can’t you wait until after the sermon?”).
While we can surmise that the young family bathroom shuffle is an ecumenical norm, there are other dimensions of Catholic worship experience that outsiders find puzzling – at least I did when I was first going to Mass, and I’m not referring exclusively to the liturgy itself. And I know things haven’t changed much over the years because when my students (virtually all Evangelical) go to Mass for the first time, their initial questions don’t revolve around epiclesis or transubstantiation. Instead, they’re curious about more mundane matters – like, “How do you all know when to get up, sit, and kneel?” and, “Does everybody just have all those prayers and responses memorized?”
Yup, I remember those days – and it was just as important to have the mundane details laid out for me as it was the more sublime theological landscape. After all, our participation in the Mass is not only ethereal and spiritual, but utterly embodied – an idea that we’re especially conscious of during Christmastide, the high holy feast of incarnated infinitude. With that in mind, here’s a few unusual details of our routine worship experience that might beg deciphering the next time non-Catholics accompany you to Mass.
1. Bulletin ads: Actually, before we get to the ads, just consider the bulletin itself – so ordinary in our experience, right? There’s announcements, Mass intentions, lector and server schedules, and other parish business. Protestant churches have something similar, but they often call it a “program,” and it includes the Sunday morning service agenda – the order of worship, in other words. As Catholics, our order of worship is the unchanging Mass itself, while the hymn numbers (which do change) are posted up front, so we don’t need a weekly handout as to what’s going to happen. Instead, Catholic bulletins are generally distributed as folks leave Mass – or else we grab them coming in to have something to peruse (in case Father’s homily drags on a bit).
The advertisement section on the back of our bulletins, though, is in another category altogether, and definitely weird for our visitors. It’s not only totally foreign to their experience, it also seems awfully close to the New Testament’s depiction of money-changing in the temple – and we all know how Jesus reacted to that practice! If you catch your guest frowning at the bulletin’s plugs for dentists, plumbers, and funeral homes, explain that they’re a way for Catholics to professionally network with fellow parishioners as well as to indirectly augment financial support for the Church – ad revenues being solely dedicated to offsetting bulletin production costs. In fact, given how stingy Catholics are when it comes to tithing and parish support, we might not have bulletins if it weren’t for all those ads.
2. Second collections: Speaking of stingy Catholics, consider the strangeness of our Sunday morning offering practices. The ushers pass the plate, and sometimes folks let it go by – or else scramble for a buck or two to toss in. Then, after Holy Communion, and often with no warning or explanation, the ushers send around the baskets again for a second collection – almost like a public scolding: “Y’all didn’t cough up enough the first time,” it seems to broadcast. “Let’s give ‘er another go.”
This is unlike the typical experience of Evangelicals at their home churches, where the offering is akin to a public sacramental – a visible sign of active involvement in the Body of Christ, and a material extension of one’s faith commitment. Tithing for many Protestant Christians is a given, so second collections are hardly necessary. Consequently, when you get a chance, let your visitors know that second collections are generally taken up at Catholic churches for particular needs and appeals – like the missions, retired religious, and Peter’s Pence. And, if possible, allow your guests to see you generously contribute to both collections – an important witness in itself, but also a reminder to your fellow parishioners that we are obliged to support the Church according to our means (Can. 222).
3. Athletes’ Mass: Like scouting Sundays, we’ve all been present at Masses when the associated school’s sporting teams have attended in uniform, sitting together near the front of church, and receiving a special blessing before the dismissal. I’ll admit that I’m not at all certain that this is a peculiarly Catholic practice – Protestant churches that sponsor their own schools may very well do something similar. Nevertheless, given the centrality of athletics in Catholic education, the para-liturgical spotlighting of our warriors on the turf and court is something that we take for granted – and which our non-Catholic visitors might find a bit disproportionate in the context.
Yet, there’s something exceedingly appropriate about associating sports with the Mass. “To belong to a sports club means to reject every form of selfishness and isolation,” Pope Francis has explained. “It is an opportunity to encounter and be with others.” Given our culture’s obsessions with sport and those who excel at it, it’s almost essential to remind our Catholic youth that there’s a deeper meaning behind athletic competition. Doing so in the heart of the liturgy makes that meaning especially vivid and penetrating.
Those sporting references bring to mind relevant New Testament imagery: “Let us lay aside every weight,” says the Letter to The Hebrews, “and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” The Christian life is indeed like an athletic contest, and this passage reminds us that we ought to be training to win – that is, to gain heaven, eternal beatitude in the company of the Blessed Trinity.
It’s noteworthy, too, that those verses from Hebrews are preceded by a grandstand allusion – that we’re “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” It’s a crowd that includes our forebears in faith (Biblical heroes, saints, martyrs), not to mention God himself. However, in keeping with the incarnational theme of this season, it’s not a bad idea to picture our neighbors and friends as occupying that grandstand as well – especially those who aren’t Catholic. If nothing else, it’ll intensify our own efforts to pursue holiness for ourselves, and – who knows? – maybe inspire them to find out what you’re up to for themselves.