Normally as we participate at Mass we are following a comfortable and routine path through the liturgies and rites. That is a good thing. Mass is anything but ordinary. It is a holy celebration during which heaven touches earth, if only briefly! By comfortable and routine I am referring to our familiarity with the rubrics. This frees us from focusing on what to do so that we may instead focus on prayer, God’s Word and being infused with the Holy Spirit.
Things were a wee bit different during the Holy Week Triduum, particularly on Good Friday. That was a communion service, not a Mass. The Eucharist was not reserved in the tabernacle either before or after. The tabernacle door remained open from Holy Thursday and the tabernacle lamp was not lit. We venerated the Crucifix and read the Passion. It seemed like everything was changed and unfamiliar.
It wasn’t just me, still a new convert (that is my excuse and I am sticking to it!). Some people knew exactly what to do, others seemed confused. When do we stand? When do we kneel? Is it time to get up? What happened to the embolism immediately after the Lord’s Prayer and “For the kingdom…”? Why did we do that part later, after the Eucharist processed into the sanctuary? Some folks genuflected entering and leaving their pew. You get the idea.
Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t mayhem. The service was very nice, appropriate and spiritually fulfilling. Communion was received. There may have been a little confusion, but enough of us were “winging it” that no one would have felt they stood out.
Later I had a minor epiphany as I thought about it. In a small way we were humbled and put into the shoes of non-Catholic visitors to Mass – wanting to participate, but not stand-out too much. Like them we were in an unfamiliar setting and a little distracted.
The analogy stops there however. Visitors have many other distractions. If they are Protestant, some of the elements of the sanctuary such as the prominent Crucifix, Saint statues, stations of the cross, prayer candles and so on – which are comforting and familiar to us – are often strange to them and differ from what they know. We recognize our priests, deacons and other parishioners while they do not. They may be wondering where is the “order of service” bulletin, what is the purpose of the thin book next to the hymnal and how does everybody just know what to do and pray? Why are there two collections? Was that the sermon or just the introduction (it is often much longer for Protestants)? Why does everyone keep crossing themselves (and how is that properly done anyway and should they do it too)? Should they kneel getting into and out of the pew? Should they receive communion?
One of the things we are good at is welcoming visitors. We are not pushy or judgmental. If we know they are a visitor, we greet and try to make them feel comfortable and welcome. By some wonderful grace they are joining us for worship and may possibly be taking the first, tentative step on a great faith journey.
If you are not Catholic, know that you are always sincerely welcome to join us at Mass (or even Good Friday communion services!). Don’t worry about the details and just follow our lead on standing, sitting and kneeling. You don’t need to genuflect when you enter or leave the pew or make the sign of the cross. Really, it is okay! The only thing you should know is that only properly disposed Catholics may receive communion (just remain in your pew for that part).
Many, many of the people you will see at Mass were not born into the faith. They joined anywhere from decades to months ago. Some were atheists, agnostics, Jewish or other non-Christian religions. Others were Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian, Anglican, Episcopalian, Mormon, Pentecostal and many other Protestant denominations. We know where you are coming from and were once there too! One last thought, joining us for Mass does not mean you want to join the Catholic Church. It just means you are joining us for Mass – that is all. Feel free to do so as often as you like and know that you are always welcome here.