Driven to Distraction

How not to let a boisterous, noisy parish deafen your ears to the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.

There you kneel, trying to pray quietly before Mass begins — and there go the folks directly behind you, cackling and chatting like ballpark patrons between innings.

During the consecration of the Eucharist, the hum of hushed conversation emanating from pockets all around the church finally gives way to sweet silence — except for the whispering and giggling of the oblivious teen trio three rows ahead.

After Mass, hoping for a few muted minutes in the presence of the Lord, you move to a forward pew — only to have two families pick the spot between you and the tabernacle for their weekly reunion.

How to survive the commotion without losing your cool — or your commitment to your local Catholic community? Begin by understanding the possible origins of the “Mass confusion,” say the voices of experience. This valuable knowledge might suggest some workable solutions.

“Part of the problem is that people are so used to noise all the time,” says Catholic radio host Teresa Tomeo, author of Noise (Ascension Press, 2007). “We’re afraid of silence. We’re afraid of our thoughts, of what God is trying to tell us, so we’re trying to fill that gap with noise.”

She also points out that people are social by nature. Combine this with poor catechesis — many churchgoing Catholics don’t know what (or whom) they’re supposed to genuflect toward, much less why they should show somber reverence near the sanctuary — and you’ve got a prescription for parish pandemonium.

“The root of the problem is the crisis of faith,” observes Father Marc Mallick, pastor of Sacred Heart of Mary Church in Boulder, Colo. “This shows in a lack of understanding of, and faith in, the True Presence.”

The priest explains how, when catechists began emphasizing the coming together of the community as the most significant feature of the liturgy, they inadvertently (or, in some cases, deliberately) downplayed the more vital, transcendent aspect. “We completely forgot the objective reality of the True Presence,” he says.

As a result, says Father Mallick, the Eucharist is not the main reason people come to Mass anymore. “You can’t blame them,” he adds, because the community aspect of communion has been “pounded into their heads. But, in fact, there’s no deeper way to become the body of Christ than in the act of receiving holy Communion.

“You’ve got the most profound forming of community in the one Eucharist. And yet, after Mass, we chitchat.”

In case there’s any question where he stands on the matter, Father Mallick concludes: “We’ve done a good job of shooting ourselves in the foot.”

Community Spirit

Of course, not everyone shares this perspective.

“I think it’s a positive, in some ways, connecting the people of God,” says Carmelite Father Bob Colaresi, director of the Society of the Little Flower in Darien, Ill. “It’s a lot of positive engagement, sensing the presence of the Lord. It’s the members of the body of Christ meeting each other.”

He adds that some people see one another only in church, which explains the overexuberance of some of the greetings. And he proposes a solution: having a moment of absolute silence before the opening hymn. This, he suggests, would remind people of the awe and reverence due Jesus.

In Norwalk, Conn., Father Greg Markey, founder of the Gospel of Life Society and pastor of St. Mary’s Church, would prefer to see the church interior as a no-chatter zone. “There’s a lot of confusion between the parish hall and the church,” he says. “We need to make that distinction.”

He points out that the only time Jesus gets furious in Scripture is when people disrespect the holiness of the Temple. “That’s worth reflecting on,” he says. “This is not something he’s indifferent toward. People need to treat the Church with reverence.”

Father Markey says pastors need to gently but clearly explain the proper way to behave in church. For his own part, he says, there are times when he asks people to take their conversations outside. “Other times,” he adds, “I’ll go and kneel before the Blessed Sacrament.” Most talkers take the hint.

Father Mallick appreciates the take-charge approach. “A priest, as spiritual father of the parish, has to set the tone,” he says. “We’ve got to return to a true catechesis of the Eucharist.”

Simple Solutions

That will take some time. How to deal with the present reality in the meantime? Father Mallick suggests arriving for Mass well early, allowing enough time to read the upcoming readings, Psalm and Gospel.

He notes that parishes that pray a pre-Mass Rosary find the practice not only invites the intercession of the Blessed Mother and the presence of the Holy Spirit, but also helps create a prayerful environment. Plus, it discourages banter.

What about applause in church? “It’s understandable, but it’s misplaced charity,” says Father Mallick. He cites an example: “I would never publicly thank our choirmaster with applause from the altar. I do it in other ways.”

His choirmaster and organist, David Hughes, agrees. “The fundamental problem with applause in church, specifically for music, is that it turns sacred music from a prayer into a mere performance,” he explains. It can cause people to lose sight, he adds, of why they’re at Mass in the first place — “and that is the worship of almighty God.”

Tomeo has some additional suggestions. “Encourage your pastor to address the issue if you’re concerned,” she says. And remember the Bible’s advice and one’s own example. “As in St. Mark’s Gospel, before pointing to the speck in your brother’s eye, remove the plank from your own.” Are we “walking into church with our cell phones on and chatting with our kids in the pews? Are we setting a good example to families around us?”

If someone tries to strike up a conversation, she advises, politely tell them you’re trying to pray right now. Then ask: “Can we talk outside after Mass?”

Little Way, Big Results

Mentioning that no situation is going to be perfect — after all, some folks won’t or can’t change — Tomeo points out that St. Thérèse of Lisieux had a beautiful way of making the best of an annoying situation: She offered up her little sufferings to God and prayed for those who distracted her.

“She turned [noise] into a symphony for God,” agrees Father Colaresi.

In her journal-turned-autobiography, Story of a Soul, the “Little Flower” revealed how, at evening meditation, she was relentlessly “wearied” by the nun behind her who made irritating clicking sounds. She wanted to turn and stare at “the culprit,” but, in her heart, knew it was better to bear this — and many other small burdens — out of love for God.

“I tried to love the little noise which was so displeasing; instead of trying not to hear it (impossible), I paid close attention so as to hear it well, as though it were a delightful concert, and my prayer ... was spent in offering this concert to Jesus.”

This “Little Way” worked big wonders for this great saint. Surely it can do the same for us.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.