Catholics will be filling the pews throughout the Advent and Christmas seasons, occasionally with relatives who may be attending Mass for the first time. How often do cradle Catholics think about why they are making the sign of the cross with holy water, walking into the sanctuary? Or how much do they prepare and explain to their non-Catholic relatives about the rich traditions of a Catholic Mass?
This short Mass etiquette guide is here to help.
The Catholic Mass includes the introductory and concluding rites; the liturgy of the Word, with Scripture readings, a homily and general intercessions; and liturgy of the Eucharist, presentation and consecration of the bread and wine with communion.
Father Juan Guido, pastor of Christ the King Church in Fort Smith, said Mass etiquette shows reverence to the Eucharist.
“There’s etiquette in any dinner. When you go to Mass it’s going to the heavenly table. We should have that profound respect for what we celebrate,” he said.
Do: Cross yourself with holy water when you enter a church.
Upon entering and leaving the church sanctuary, the faithful will dip their fingers in one of the holy water fonts and make the sign of the cross, hearkening to their baptism, which is the gateway to other sacraments, and acknowledging that the sanctuary is a sacred, consecrated place, Father Guido said.
The sign of the cross is an acknowledgement of our belief in the Trinity and Jesus’ redemption through the cross — in the name of the Father (forehead), and of the Son (chest) and of the Holy Spirit (left and then right shoulders), according to the book, “Why Do Catholics: A Guide to Catholic Belief and Practice.”
*Tip for non-Catholics: Because the Catholic Church recognizes other baptized Christians, they can also bless themselves with holy water, Father Guido said.
Do: Genuflect on right knee or bow toward tabernacle
Before entering or leaving a pew, Catholics will genuflect, briefly bending on the right knee and bowing while making the sign of the cross. Genuflecting is an act of worship. This one-knee genuflection, toward the Blessed Sacrament in the tabernacle, or the altar, has been instructed since 1973. Formerly, bowing on both knees was done, according to “The Catholic Source Book.” If genuflecting is not physically possible, bowing is an acceptable posture.
Don’t: Talk loudly before Mass
Before Mass begins, congregants should be in silent prayer. In 2017, Pope Francis said because Mass is the highest form of prayer where people prepare to meet Jesus in the Eucharist, people should not “chitchat.”
“Silence is so important. … Silence prepares us and accompanies us,” Pope Francis said, according to a Nov. 15, 2017, Catholic News Service article. “Please, Mass is not a show. It is going to encounter the Passion, the resurrection of the Lord.”
Do: Kneel during the consecration, if possible
Throughout the Mass, there will be moments of standing, sitting and kneeling. For example, during the Gospel reading, Catholics will stand and before it is read, they will trace a small cross on their forehead, lips and heart using their thumb and forefinger to invite “the Lord to sanctify their thoughts, their speech and their way of life through his holy Word,” according to Catholic.org.
“Kneeling is one of the most profound ways we do worship,” Father Guido said, adding that standing is a sign of respect, kneeling is penance and sitting can be a sign of active listening during the Mass. However, it’s not a requirement, reminding Catholics to “never impose, always invite” their non-Catholic guests.
“It’s a sense of reverence for the Eucharist … Kneeling to the King of Kings. It’s just a profound adoration,” he said.
*Tip for non-Catholics: Particularly during the consecration when the priest blesses the bread and wine, it is recommended to kneel, or to sit if disabled.
Do: Donate even if you don’t have an envelope
A collection basket is passed by ushers for members to donate with envelopes given by the parish. Donations are typically given to the general parish fund, though a second collection toward a specific cause can also be made. Guests can also choose to donate without an envelope.
Do: Make a gesture of prayer
During the Lord’s Prayer, or Our Father, the faithful may hold hands with fellow congregants, fold their hands or hold their hands with palms raised, following guidelines from their pastor. At the conclusion of the prayer, the priest raises his hands and the laity typically follow, though there’s not a definitive directive to do so, Father Guido said. While there is nothing in Church rubrics that forbid or allow handholding, Father Erik Pohlmeier, diocesan director of faith formation, said it is at the discretion of the bishop, who can direct the pastors to make the final decision.
Don’t: Cross the aisle to shake hands or chat
Congregants give the sign of peace to those around them, reminding everyone “they are a community of believers joined in prayer and love” and also as a sign of reconciliation, the ‘Why Do Catholics’ book stated. Faithful can give a handshake, a hug or another greeting while saying a form of “peace be with you.” If a person is ill, they are not obligated to give a handshake during the sign of peace.
In 2014, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments affirmed to Latin-rite bishops that the sign of peace, which was being debated on where it was placed in a Mass, would stay where it is and only be omitted if it is “foreseen that it will not take place properly,” according to a 2014 Catholic News Service article. Some of the abuses noted in the congregation’s letter on the topic included walking around giving the sign of peace and also using it as a time for congratulations, condolences or holiday greetings at weddings, funerals or Christmas Masses.
“The sign of peace should be always those around you, the approximate circle around you. If you have to walk and go and give peace to somebody on the other side of church, it should not be disturbing the Mass,” Father Guido said.
The congregation’s letter stated, reported by CNS, “Christ is our peace, the divine peace, announced by the prophets and by the angels, and which he brought to the world by means of his paschal mystery. This peace of the risen Lord is invoked, preached and spread in the celebration (of Mass), even by means of a human gesture lifted up to the realm of the sacred.”
Do: Say ‘Amen’ after receiving Eucharist
When they approach the clergy or extraordinary minister of holy Communion, Catholics bow and then receive the Eucharist on the tongue or on their left palm, saying “Amen” after the words “The body of Christ” are spoken. For non-Catholics or Catholics who cannot receive the Eucharist for various reasons, including an irregular marriage or being in the state of mortal sin, clergy or extraordinary minister can make the sign of the cross on their forehead and bless them in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit, Father Guido said.
Bishop Anthony B. Taylor said, “This blessing on the forehead by lay ministers of Communion is modeled on the action of the godparents in the liturgy of baptism where they claim the baby for Christ.” Therefore, it is appropriate for lay ministers to trace the cross on the person’s forehead with their thumb, he said.
After Communion or a blessing, the faithful should return to their pews for prayer.
*Tip for non-Catholics: Because of a difference of belief regarding the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and not joining the Catholic Church, non-Catholics cannot receive Communion, but they can receive a blessing by approaching with their arms crossed over their chest.
Do: Wait until after the last song to leave church
In the concluding rites of the Mass, the priest gives a final blessing to the faithful and gives the dismissal rite, which is a direct mission, “Go forth, the Mass is ended,” or in the Latin tradition, “Ite, missa est.” A final song is sung as the priest processes from the sanctuary.
The priest is telling the faithful in the dismissal to “go and proclaim what you hear and see in the Eucharist,” Father Guido said. Leaving early misses the holy mission given to Catholics.
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