The basic idea of how we should behave in Church is summed up by the Second
Council of Lyons, A.D. 1274:
It is fitting that
He Whose abode has been established in peace should be worshipped in peace
and with due reverence. Churches, then, should be entered humbly and devoutly;
behaviour inside should be calm, pleasing to God, bringing peace to the
beholders, a source not only of instruction but of mental refreshment. Those
who assemble in church should extol with an act of special reverence that
Name which is above every Name, than which no other under Heaven has been
given to people, in which believers must be saved, the Name, that is, of
Jesus Christ, Who will save His people from their sins. Each should fulfil
in himself that which is written for all, that at the Name of Jesus every
knee should bow; whenever that glorious Name is recalled, especially during
the sacred Mysteries of the Mass, everyone should bow the knees of his heart,
which he can do even by a bow of his head. In churches the sacred solemnities
should possess the whole heart and mind; the whole attention should be given
People have no
problem, it seems, dressing for weddings, funerals, office parties, or dates
-- but seem to think that dressing to meet Almighty God at the Mass is
passé. But dressing for Mass is simply a matter of showing proper
respect, not only for God, but for others around you. It's certainly not
a matter of showing off one's finery -- lots of people don't even have fine
clothes. Certainly, too, some people may attend certain Masses -- say the
5:30 PM Masses -- on their way home from their construction jobs. Fine! There
is nothing to worry about in these things! Never let circumstances out of
your control make you feel embarrassed or keep you away from the Sacraments!
But one should always wear clothes that are modest, and, if possible, all
things being equal, clean and the nicest clothes one has.
Below are some guidelines for proper attire (which also apply for other
liturgies, such as Eucharistic Adoration or the Divine Office, etc.):
|Just say no.
|Nice blue jeans
can be "OK" (but just OK), especially if dressed up, but are not ideal. But
if jeans are all you have, by golly, wear jeans!
men and considered the mark of the "well-dressed" in the West. If you have
no suit or jacket, then come in the best you have, if possible.
never wear hats in churches (except for rare ceremonial reasons on
the part of some confraternities and lay associations).
On the other hand, women do cover their heads and have from the very
first day of the Church. Please read more about veiling
here. Some parishes and chapels will have veils available for women who
don't have one.
Special to Women:
|Like men, women
should wear their "Sunday best," which in the West is typically considered
to be a dress or skirt. Hemlines should cover the knees when standing and
sitting, shoulders should be covered (i.e., "tank top" dresses and spaghetti
straps are not kosher), and necklines should be modest. If you have no dress
or skirt, then wear the best outfit you have, if possible.
Just a note on
lipstick: if you wear some, be sure to blot really well before kissing icons,
statues, the priest's hands, etc. ("Oprah 'Girlfriend' Tip": get the kind
that doesn't "kiss off" or smudge...)
This is beyond
"etiquette," but I will note here that you are to
fast before receiving the Eucharist, and are to
refrain from receiving the Eucharist if you are in a state of mortal sin.
If you are a public, unrepentant sinner, the priest has every right and duty
to not offer you the Body of Christ.
in a church and at the Mass should be based on these Truths:
Christ is present
in the tabernacle. Therefore, respect the sanctuary as the holiest area of
the church; it is the Holy of Holies.
During the Mass,
we are at the foot of the Cross, witnessing the re-presentation of the Sacrifice
at Calvary. How would you behave if you could see, in a way very apparent
to the senses, Christ on the Cross, pouring out His Blood for you? What sort
of gratitude and reverence would you exhibit? Look upon the Mass with the
eyes of faith, and know that the all too common focus on the Mass only
or primarily as "celebratory meal" or a "happy gathering" is in
no way Catholic and in no way represents the Truth of what the Mass
If you're not shy,
greet newcomers outside or in the Narthex (NOT in the church itself!) as
they come in or leave. Make them feel welcome; learn their names. Give them
eye contact, a warm handshake, a friendly pat on the back. Introduce them
to the priest after Mass if they haven't already met. Let them know they
are welcome, wanted, and entering the House of God. If they are new parishioners,
talk to them sometime about events and associations in your parish. Go out
of your way to make them feel at home. (Of course, on the other hand,
some people are loners or are in very contemplative moods before Mass or
just like to go to Mass and be left alone. Use your intuition and respect
their wishes -- but a smile never hurt a loner, either!)
When you enter
the Church, cross yourself with
Holy Water and thank God for the grace given to
you at Baptism. When you reach your pew, genuflect
toward the Tabernacle in the Sanctuary before sitting down.
Keep sacred silence
in the church. Avoid unecessary conversation and keep necessary conversation
to a very low whisper. The Church is a lot holier than a library,
Please try to be
on time for Mass! Sometimes things can't be helped, without doubt -- cars
break down, babies need changing, alarm clocks fail to go off -- but chronic
lateness for the Mass is rude and disruptive.
If you go to Confession right before Mass,
let the priest know how many people are in line behind you for the Confessional.
If you have an extremely long confession to make and there are many people
behind you and Mass begins soon, mention only mortal sins or make your confession
at a later date (and do NOT receive the Eucharist if any of the sins you
need to confess are mortal!).
When someone is in the Confessional, keep a very wide berth of it.
It's very, very rude -- very rude -- to stand anywhere near the
Confessional when it is in use by another. (I always put a hand over my ear
that faces the Confessional if I have to pass by it and someone is in there
with the priest. It's not that one can overhear what is going on inside the
Confessional -- I never have, at least -- but it helps signal to others that
the Confessional is a very safe, private place that all Catholics understand
needs to be respected as such).
Children sometimes can't help making a bit of noise at Mass -- but it's
usually the kind of noise we Catholics love to hear (what's better
than new Catholics, especially little tiny ones?). If your child is out of
control, though, or disruptive enough to distract people or makes it hard
for others to hear or contemplate, take him to the Narthex, the "Cry Room,"
or outside. Remember, too, that an acceptable level of noise to you as a
parent might be one thing because you are so used to hearing your children
that you take their sounds for granted; others might find that same noise
very distracting. And, please, don't let your children kick the backs of
the pews or turn around and stare at people behind them.
Note that children under the age of reason (7 years old) aren't
required to assist at Mass, so, while it is extremely laudable
to bring children of ALL ages to Mass, it is also OK to leave them at
home, too, if it makes things easier on you or if they are particularly cranky
or boisterous one day (my prayer, though, is that parents do bring their
children to Mass as often as possible!).
It might be best if couples with tiny infants and very young toddlers sat
in the back of the church and at the end of the pew, if possible, so that
if you must leave to tend to your children, your departure won't be distracting.
Children who are old enough to pay some attention, though, might be better
off sitting in front so that they can watch more closely what the priest
and altar boys do. This will not only help them learn about the Mass, but
will keep their attention occupied so they'll be less restive. Children who
are old enough to read should have children's missals so they can follow
Encourage your child's attention at the Mass by teaching him and by asking
him questions beforehand, giving him things to watch for. As an example,
you could ask him: how many times the priest makes the Sign of the Cross
during the Mass, and let him try to count them; what side of the Altar the
priest chants the Epistle from; at what times the bells ring; how often the
exchange "Dominus vobiscum" and "Et cum spiritu tuo" is made; to discover
what his favorite chanted melody is and what the words mean, etc. Ask him
to look and listen for things that help us to know what liturgical season
it is, for example the presence or absence of the alleluia or gloria, the
liturgical colors used, etc.
Have him listen to the priest's sermon and to the Gospel readings, and then
have him repeat it back to you at the after-Mass breakfast or during supper.
Ask him questions about what he heard during the sermon and Gospel readings,
what it means, what he thinks about what he heard, what questions he might
have, to draw pictures that depict today's Gospel, etc. Make these exchanges
fun and interesting, though; we don't want "Church" to be seen as a chore
or a bore, and the child shouldn't feel as if he's being put through an
Do not chew gum
or bring food or drinks into the church. The only exceptions are
discreetly breastfeeding or giving a bottle to an infant (or, of course,
rare medical emergencies such as giving water to a person reviving from having
fainted, etc. True charity trumps all law, and law exists to serve
Never applaud in
church for any reason.
Do not pray in
the orans position (with arms extended upwards or outwards) during
the liturgy. Though it is an ancient, natural, and beautiful prayer posture
-- rather like a child reaching up to his Father -- and though it is commonly
seen among the laity in the Novus Ordo Mass, it is a posture reserved
for priests during the properly-offered Mass. Pray in the orans position
all you want at home.
During the Offertory
(the very first part of the Mass of the Faithful) is when the collection
is taken. Have your offering prepared before you get to church and ready
to pull out at this time. The ushers will move from the front of the church
to the back, away from the Altar. How much to give is left to your
discretion, as we are not bound by the Old Testament laws of tithing but
are bound, as a precept of the Church, to support the Church as a general
If you're not
receiving the Eucharist, be sure
to raise the kneeler, if necessary, and make room for people to cross in
front of you so they can go stand in line.
When you receive
the Host, don't chew on it like it's a piece of steak; let it soften in your
mouth, then swallow. One does not respond "Amen" or with any gesture but
the Sign of the Cross after receiving the Host, unlike
in the Novus Ordo.
Communion, keep a "custody of the eyes." Walk back to your seat with eyes
in front of you, toward the floor. The most traditional posture after receving
Communion is to walk with your hands in the "prayer position" -- palms together,
fingers pointing upward, held at chest level. When you reach your pew, it
is customary to kneel after Communion.
Both before and after you've received, maintain this "custody of the eyes"
and don't watch people as they return to their seats. Though the Eucharist
unites us into one Body, it is, paradoxically, a very intimate time that
calls for intense gratitude and individual contemplation (you may see people
cover their faces with their hands or veils for a sense of
The Mass is not
truly over until the priest has left the Altar. Don't sneak out after Communion.
When it is time
to leave (i.e., after the priest has descended from the Altar and left the
building), those sitting in the front pews generally leave first ("first
in, first out"). This order should be maintained because we genuflect upon
leaving our pew -- and we shouldn't be genuflecting toward some guy walking
toward us down the aisle or blocking his exit. When you do exit your pew
to leave the church, genuflect once again toward the Tabernacle. Some Catholics
also again sign themselves with Holy Water when leaving the Church (a perfectly
fine, pious custom, but one which isn't related to the historically-rooted
purposes of blessing oneself upon entering the church).
Guests: If you bring a non-Catholic guest to Mass, explain to him the
meaning of the Mass, its parts, what to expect, etc, beforehand. And
definitely explain to him lovingly, before you arrive at church, why
he is not allowed to receive the Eucharist. Assure him that he is most
welcome, and that we are glad he is with us, but that we Catholics know
that the apparent "Bread and Wine" is truly the very Body, Blood, Soul
and Divinity of Christ. Tell him that if that is not how he sees it, we believe
he would be eating and drinking judgement on himself -- 1 Corinthians
11:29 -- and that we would be absolutely remiss in allowing him to receive
the Eucharist without discerning the Body of Christ. Explain that even if
he does believe it, Catholics who are not in a state of grace and young Latin
Catholics who haven't yet been properly prepared for their
"First Communion" don't receive
the Eucharist, so it's nothing personal.
...and if he does believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist,
teach him about the rest of Catholic teaching and get him to
judgementalism: Do not sit in judgement of those who come to Mass not
knowing the proper attire and etiquette (I speak here of the good-willed
who are simply ignorant, not public, persistent, unrepentant sinners who
use the Mass for political purposes, who flaunt Divine Law intentionally,
etc. Even with these people, we are to refrain from personal judgements and
are to love them in Truth, even as we judge their actions and protect our
Instruct those who are new to the Church gently and lovingly -- and mostly
by good example. Ideally, churches and chapels will have the basic expectations
written somewhere in the Narthex, in parish bulletins, in pamphlets in the
pews, etc, but in any case, dirty looks and an accusing tone hurled at a
newcomer are uncalled for; much more Christian -- and effective -- is a simple,
"Ah! You're new here! Welcome! It's great that you're here! Here is some
information that will help you feel comfortable at this parish; please, if
you have any questions, just ask!" -- all wrapped up in a warm, genuine smile.
Instead of thrusting a veil at an unveiled woman and looking at her as though
she's the devil incarnate, give her a big smile and a "Oh, sister, you don't
have a veil? Here's one that would look pretty on you!" or some other such
thing (assuming you can speak genuinely). If she isn't receptive, just mind
your own danged business and let Father deal with it his way.
Finally, don't assume the ill-dressed even have better clothes or were in
the circumstance of being able to access better clothes (maybe they'd been
in an hospital waiting room all night, who knows? None of your business!).
While we do owe our Lord our best, the Mass isn't a fashion show,
and we've lost the Christian message entirely if we are are "like to whited
sepulchres, which outwardly appear to men beautiful but within are full of
dead men's bones and of all filthiness" -- which sitting in judgement of
other people without knowing their situation and acting like holier-than-thou
Pharisees would make us.
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