When Mass Rubs the Nerves Raw

My First Things piece this week confesses that I sometimes seek out a music-less mass at an early hour, just to escape the rambunctious irreverence that sometimes makes Sunday mass an opportunity to practice the virtue of patience…and endurance:

Perhaps it is different where you worship, but in my parish—and I would count mine as one of the “quieter” and “more reverent” in our area—that sort of preparation is nearly impossible. The choir and musicians are noisily setting up, talking and laughing. The people in the pews—of all ages—are “being community” with such a boisterous disregard for time or place that a priest recently halted his robing to stride out from the sacristy and call, “excuse me! This is not a movie theater; it’s not Grand Central Station. Have a little consideration, please. There might actually be a couple of people here who are, you know . . . praying.”

I know it sounds like “get off my lawn” but the piece takes a turn that may surprise you. Check it out.

Perhaps folks have to first recognize their own need to quiet down. Then they might recognize it in the needs of others, too, and behave accordingly, but it starts with understanding the value of recollection, to begin with. Something that fundamental is no longer obvious to our very distracted culture.

There is no reason why a community at mass cannot contain a sense of recollection. If we no longer understand that recollection is worthwhile, then we really do have to start re-catechizing from the bottom up, again. The saints will help us!

Mike Hayes expresses a similar thought

Mary DeTurris Poust: Pose by Pose, Amen and Om

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Maureen from Canada

    The ability to ‘self-quiet’ is sorely missing in society today. Every minute of every day MUST be filled with action and sound. I think it is what contributes to the high levels of ADHD.

    Some of the best times I have spent have been by MYSELF, just thinking about stuff. But then most people think I just weird!

  • Randy

    I am a church musician and yes setting up instruments etc. for Mass can be noisy and sometimes the music itself can be questionable. For every person who painfully endures the music there seems to be one who is blessed by that same music. Prayerful silence is powerful and our parish has a two minute silent prayer buffer between the priest’s greeting the congregation and the processional.
    Balancing the need for community interaction and the need for silent contemplation is a problem that I’m not sure can be solved easily for two live in tension with each other. Perhaps silent preparation could be done at home before arriving for Mass.
    When it comes to combining music with meditative prayer I have found that Taize style prayer is one of the more successful.

    [A two-minute prayer buffer does sound like a great idea! -admin]

  • Ann

    I go through stages like this.

    Lately, I’ve been trying to create more gratitude about the whole thing. There are so many places in the world where people are not allowed to go to Mass, or even where there is no Mass nearby. And we might be headed into one of those times ourselves soon…

  • craig

    Part of the problem is architectural design. Too many newer churches are built without a proper separation between the vestibule and the nave. Alternatively, many of them lack the visual and aural cues to signify the transition between ‘Grand Central’ and the place of worship.

    If your vestibule is a blank space, and as quiet as a doctor’s waiting room, you might have a problem. It should have clutter and noise, and signify ‘here is where we socialize’, so that people will notice its absence when they move into the nave.

  • kevin

    I agree with this. I attend a parish where the latin mass is now said but it is always a two-hour, sung high-mass extravaganza. I would love a quiet low mass once in a while.

  • Rhinestone Suderman

    Yes, when I was Catholic, I always sought out the early morning, no music mass, for the quiet.

    I think there’s something to be said for the Orthodox church’s rule of no man-made musical instruments to be used during the liturgy—only the human voice—and for training choirs to sing the office respectfully, and with no solo “performers”.

  • Elaine

    I am very lucky in my church. It is always very quiet at mass. I love it because I can fully concentrate on the altar and prayers. We do have a cantor that has an opera type voice which is not always soothing but can’t complain as the choir is subdued and very good. I think our priest really gives off a vibe of total reverence and seriousness of the holiness of mass and it certainly seems to register with the folks. Once mass is over it is quite lively in the parish hall with the donuts, coffee and the kids running around. Very nice time to socialize in there.

  • craig

    Regarding Randy’s comment: when I was Episcopalian we had that exact prayer buffer time, and it was a very good thing. What bugs me no end in the Catholic church I now attend are the musicians either rehearsing right up to the processional (why? it’s the same infernal ’70s syrup every week), or else announcing a ‘teaser’ preview of the Mass readings, as if it were a commercial for the ten o’clock news.

  • John

    Could. Not. Agree. More.

    Spoken-word prayer allows me to think about what I’m saying in a way that singing just does not allow. And if the musical arrangement is, er, lacking (alas, it usually is), well that can make those whole thing an outright distraction.

  • http://www.noodlingonit.com Kris, in New England

    Perhaps because I am a new Catholic (baptized at last year’s Easter Vigil), I find the community and socializing to be, in itself, a form of prayer. Everyone talking to everyone else, moving around to say hello to someone who perhaps just returned to Church after an illness; it all represents a fellowship of its own. The presumed safety of Church, the obvious love for one another. In our church there is a quiet Mass at 8:00am on Sundays; the other 3 Masses on the weekend are filled with music.
    Which, I also love. To me music and singing is praying twice.
    Maureen from Canada in the first comment said people these days don’t know how to self-quiet and I agree with that. However when I want to be more prayerful and less social before Mass, I just bow my head at my seat (we don’t have kneelers). People know that’s a sign of prayerful contemplation and they hubbub around me will diminish somewhat. If I can’t quiet myself into prayer, the general buzz of friendship and love around me – is a prayer of its own.

    [A couple weeks I was kneeling, w/ head bowed, praying before mass and someone came over, tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a big friendly hello and engaged me in conversation. I understood her desire to be friendly. I was sad, though, that she could not understand my desire to snatch a few minutes of prayer. -admin]

  • SteveM

    Off Broadway theatrics have probably driven more Catholics away from Sunday Mass than anything else. The music is intrusive to contemplation more than anything else.

    I attended a beautiful old church, St. Dominic’s in downtown DC. They had quiet Masses for the Saturday Vigil and Sunday evening. And also at Sunday at 8 AM. And the homilies by the Dominicans were first rate. The environment and the service were ideal for reflection.

    But then the Saturday Mass went Off Broadway, followed by Sunday evening and finally the 8 AM Mass. That was it. They could have renamed St. Dominic’s, the Church of the Holy Cacophony.

    I think a two minute “prayer buffer” is inadequate and besides the point. It’s not an us against them. Making parishioners grit their teeth through a Mass makes no sense. If enough parishioners want a quiet Mass, just schedule a quiet Mass.

  • MissMaryJane

    Mass is supposed to be a solemn, reverent, quiet, SACRED time. People should be able to go a little early for quiet time to pray in their pews, not have to listen to musicians practicing or people chattering. There’s no quiet after Mass either so to suggest people could do their quiet praying after is unworkable. Two minutes is not sufficient. How about 15 minutes? How about musicians arrive so they are ready 15 minutes before Mass & don’t act like they are the center of Mass, rather than a component which isn’t actually necessary for Mass. If you want community then go to coffee & doughnuts after or set up something outside Mass. Mass is meant to be MASS.

  • George Marchand

    To meet God in the midst of cacophony and agitation, sink deeper.

  • George Marchand

    a priest recently halted his robing to stride out from the sacristy and call, “excuse me! This is not a movie theater; it’s not Grand Central Station. Have a little consideration, please. There might actually be a couple of people here who are, you know . . . praying.”

    condescendingly unkind comment

  • kieranesq

    The quality of our sense experiences determines the quality of our insights or acts of understanding. Generally, the experience of daily Mass facilitates an understanding and appreciation of the Mass that the experience of a Sunday Mass does not. I hardly began to understand and appreciate the Mass until one Lent when I resolved to attend Mass every day. That’s why any non-fervent Catholic, or non-Catholic interested in Catholicism, should attend Mass during the week.

  • Beth

    Started going to daily mass with the young children 18 months ago. After about three months, the 12 year old whispered to me at a Sunday morning mass, “I really like daily mass, mom. It’s so quiet and I can really pray!”

    Couldn’t agree more. Sunday mass seems to be an ordeal to endure.

  • http://miraculous-disaster.blogspot.com/ David

    I started going to daily mass a couple of years ago and while at first, I did not appreciate daily mass as much as Sunday mass, I find that I have changed my opinion. I find the peace and prayerful silence of the daily mass so conducive to prayer that, as Beth said, for me, “Sunday mass seems to be an ordeal to endure.”

    A large part of what I must endure is the apparent need to play music, music inspired by popular culture, whenever there might be a few seconds of silence.

    I long for a mass where the entrance and communion antiphons are actually chanted, spoken or sung. Does anyone really think that “Gather Your People” is an improvement upon the Psalms?

  • Ellen

    I LOVE daily Mass but am unable to go except one or two days a week. I love it for the quiet, the calm, the sense of prayer that’s there. Our Sunday Masses, which are quite reverent, are too often marred by all the chat, chat, chat before Mass usually by older parishioners who are hard of hearing. And sadly, the ushers are often the worst offenders.

    I so love quiet and it’s so hard to find nowadays.

  • Randy

    I hope this is not considered off topic but some of the comments above have me asking myself some questions. As a church musician how do I set up for Mass quietly and reverently in order not to disturb? In order to have the music for the Mass be pleasant and worshipful our instruments need to be tuned, sound levels need to be checked, voices need to be warmed up. Ideally the music team should have a separate dedicated space to warm up voices and tune instruments but in my experience space is rarely available. I hate to think that my ministry is a burden and a cross to bear for my brothers and sisters in Christ. Oh, and regarding the 70′s music…yes there is a lot of that. I am also a songwriter of modern religious music so I’ll do my best to maintain the best quality I can. :-)

  • http://www.noodlingonit.com Kris, in New England

    I hate to think that my ministry is a burden and a cross to bear for my brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Randy – speaking for myself and the vast majority of my parish (Church of the Holy Family, Hebron CT) our music ministry is most certainly not a burden. We do have a small % of parishioners who prefer a quiet Mass which is why we have an 8:00am Mass on Sundays, without music. We also have daily Mass which is silent as well.
    Our music ministry is indeed respectful of the needs of the parishioners before Mass starts and will do their best to get their tuning and rehearsals, where needed, completed at least 5 minutes before Mass begins, thereby allowing for a period of quiet. In fact, when the musician(s)/cantor stop playing/singing, all those gathered for Mass also … quiet down.
    I returned to church after a nearly 20 year absence and converted to Catholicism at the same time. I went back to church because I needed fellowship; I need more God in my life and I needed a structured way to welcome Him back into my life. The openness and joy with which my parish greeted me when I started going – the friendliness and genuine compassion expressed thru greetings and honest interest – are one of the reasons I joined the Catholic church. Clearly my parish is more “new age” than what some people here are looking for.
    So – forgive me if this is rude – to everyone wanting more quiet from their Mass experience and not getting it at their current parish…why not find a new parish that provides the quiet that you crave?

  • http://dailywoof.wordpress.com Kensington

    Randy, I wish more parishes would have less music production. I can’t really think of a church with an extensive “music ministry where the service didn’t end up feeling like a religious concert with some lite Catholicism rather than a Mass.

    And I say that as someone who used to be part of the problem, soloing extensively at my church in Brooklyn.

  • Mike

    “There is no reason why a community at mass cannot contain a sense of recollection. If we no longer understand that recollection is worthwhile, then we really do have to start re-catechizing from the bottom up, again. The saints will help us!”

    There is no doubt in my mind we need the re-catechizing from the ground up. Gone for decades now is the Church where you could go to pray. Even during mass sorry to say.

    Mass in most places – yes, MOST – is now a stage show for readers, eucharistic ministers, bad musicians and cantors, and of course Father.

    Why is it that homilies and hymns must be “endured” more than anything else? A simple short homily that taught a lesson from the Gospel is too much to hope for. A song that people actually liked and could sing is like an impossible dream. The musicians have done their practice and we will sit through their routine whether we like it or not! And 9 times out of 10 we don’t like it.

    The congregation have been reduced to passive spectators. They will not dare even give us 30 seconds of silence and prayer – lest we miss Father’s rambling or the choir’s latest 10 minute version of the Gloria.

    I will take a darkened Church and the priest mumbling prayers in Latin. Then I have a chance to get something real out of mass – like prayer and a connection to God.

    I am resigned that we will spend the usual 40 years in the desert for our sin – which was to make the mass “relevant”. We made it so relevant that the few people left who go view it as a kind of pre-purgatory. It is so relevant that something like 10% of baptized Catholics actually attend anymore. We can ask, Why should they? No one there will shut up and leave them be with their God and their souls and the world and others they know so well already, so why bother?

  • You Go Anchoress

    Glad to know I’m not alone in feeling this way … I seek out daily mass whenever I can because, for me anyway, it’s a far more spiritual experience. Sunday mass has come to feel like a sterile obligation—stand up, kneel down, sit back and listen while the cantor puts on a performance. I’m grateful for daily mass and our Eucharistic adoration chapel because they offer the chance to meet God in a quiet place. That’s a powerful thing.

  • Rick

    Randy, thanks for leading music. From my untutored, unmusical perspective here is what I’d like to see:
    – Lower the key that the choir signs in–half the time the music is so high that my voice hurts after one verse. My choir has the sopranos sing the melody line. I am a 53 year old male who will sing if someone will lead in a key I can follow.
    –Don’t sing in too many parts. All of the choirs at my church want 4 part harmonies and want the congregation to join in. I can’t find the melody even in a song I know when I hear too many parts.
    –Choirs seem to complain if there isn’t a lot of change–let’s do something new–it’s the same stuff over and over. Congregations don’t learn and can’t sing along if there are new songs every week.
    I’m a guy who can barely sing, but I try because it’s prayer at Church. Take may comments for what they are worth, which is probably very little.

  • Eliza

    heh. A few months ago I was waiting for Mass to start with my 9 yr old daughter, and the din was outrageous. Groups of people from the previous Mass standing around inside the church chatting and laughing, and to make it worse the ushers, standing together at the back of the church, talking loudly, and occasionally breaking out into loud laughter. I was so upset that I actually went over and told the ushers that they were being disrespectful to the people who were there getting ready for the Mass to start. The all looked chastened and stopped talking, but I felt guilty and miserable for the entire Mass. But why should I even have to do this? I wanted my 9 yr old to understand that when she enters the church, she is to be respectful. But when the church is filled with people who do not model this behavior at all, how is she to learn?

  • http://dailywoof.wordpress.com Kensington

    Eliza, I’m very glad you spoke up to the ushers. If anyone should feel appropriate embarrassed by their conduct, it’s them.

    This sort of conduct is amongst the many, serious problems at the parish I attend with my father every weekend. The worst example I can recall was when the congregation showed absolutely zero reverence following the Holy Thursday services last year. At the end of the service, the Host was placed in the Tabernacle, and as a few of us gathered for silent prayer, the vast majority of the congregants immediately went into party mode.

    I’ll never forget the broad smile on the face of the man who posed for photographs with his child (who had just made his confirmation), first on the altar and then right in front of the tabernacle, as if they were on a red carpet rather than in God’s home.

  • http://cinemacatechism.blogspot.com/ Bender

    two minute silent prayer buffer

    Yeah, you seem to be well meaning and all, but this just cries out for a sarcastic “thanks a lot.” A whole two minutes?

    How about instead of two minutes, whenever you are in the main body of the church (i.e. nave) you maintain a respectful quiet? Not just two minutes – but always.

    That doesn’t mean no talking whatsoever, but it does mean giving the church the respect that you might give a library or a movie theater! If you absolutely must speak, do so in quiet whispers.

    As for musicians preparing, warming up, and breaking down — set up well in advance of Mass, NOT in the 15 minutes before, and wait until well after Mass to break down — at least 15 minutes after. If you need to warm up, do it somewhere else. Too bad that “no other rooms are available” — the church is not available either.

    God comes first. Second comes those who are seeking to pray to Him.

  • http://cinemacatechism.blogspot.com/ Bender

    And I am all for socializing and talking in a normal voice to friends after Mass. BUT DO IT OUTSIDE THE CHURCH. You can socialize in the “gathering space” too, it doesn’t have to be in front of the altar or two feet from the guy kneeling in prayer. Or in the church hall or wherever they have meetings and serve donuts.

  • DWiss

    My parish has four Masses on Sunday. Each one is a little diffrent: no choir, children’s choir, adult choir, and a choir with whoever shows up. I don’t go to the 7:30 am no-choir Mass very often for obvious reasons, but I did a couple of weeks ago and I completely enjoyed the silence. It was a nice surprise, but I wouldn’t want it all the time.

    As for quiet recollection, forget it, except at 7:30. That’s where you find the hard core Mass people. They’re there becuase they mean it. A later Mass always has a bus load from the assisted care facility nearby. Most of those folks are hard of hearing, so there’s kind of a din before Mass begins. That’ll probably be me someday so I try to be patient, a characteristic that does not come naturally to me.

    Last June as we were getting ready for our Confirmation Mass (on a Saturday, not during a regularly scheduled Mass), people were showing up with Starbuck’s cups and bottled water. Finally, the church sounded more like a crowded theatre before a performance. The priest came out and reminded everyone that the Blessed Sacrament was present, which worked for about 90 seconds. The Mass began shortly after, which was good, because I thought the poor priest was going to have a nervous breakdown. The Vicar General was there and I’m sure the priest was trying to show off his parish, in spite of the coffee cups.

  • Teresa

    At our small parish we normally wait until we are outside to socialize. Even there some things can go wrong. As we were leaving the man in front of me recognized someone across the parking lot. With the priest standing there, the man yelled “well I’ll be damned Joe haven’t seen you in a long time where the hell have you been.” Oh, well.

  • http:psalm37threefour.blogspot.com A. Noël

    Thoughts that come to mind when I remember the noisy Masses I’ve been to {shudder}, and what I’d like to say to those who act in such a clueless fashion:

    If Roman Catholics entered a church prior to Mass and Pope Benedict XVI was unexpectedly sitting in the presider’s chair, would they just roam around the church, paying no attention, chatting away? I think they’d gasp in surprise, then sit quietly, waiting to hear what he had to say. What if Pope Benedict happened to gesture to you – only you – to come up close to him for a special message? If you were chatting with someone else, you’d miss it. Papa Benedict would not yell your name. He’d turn to someone else, – someone who was paying attention.

    If you walk into a Roman Catholic church any day but Good Friday or Holy Saturday, the one Benedict XVI reports to is already there.

    On Calvary, there were soldiers playing dice for Jesus’ clothing, chatting and making jokes while he hung above them, suffering. Would they have behaved that way if they’d known who he was?

    Do you think Mary chatted and laughed while Jesus slowly suffocated in the hot sun?

    If you prefer to chat in church or do rehearsal before Mass, are you saying it was wrong for the saints to cherish silence before Mass in centuries past? How is it that noise is now suddenly better than recollected silence? If it is a more effective practice to strengthen one’s faith and focus at Mass, there must be a convincing reasoned explanation in print somewhere. Can someone point me to it?

    St. Paul wrote in Romans 14 about how important it is to suit one’s behavior in some ways to accommodate others’ weaknesses, to help support their faith, and do not do anything to cause another to “stumble” (Rom. 14:21). In charity, I will assume that the chatterers do not comprehend the distress their actions cause me and people like me. If they understood and did it anyway, it would be very cruel. In any case, I must avoid situations which are occasions to sin, so you won’t see me at those Masses.

  • kevin

    Teresa, that made me laugh. Funny.

  • http://janettekok.blogspot.com/ J Kok

    Dear Anchoress,

    Here is a quote from A Sunlit Absence: Silence, Awareness, and Contemplation, by Martin Laird:

    Coping with disruptive noise that we simply cannot do anything about does not so much call for praying to the patron saint of noise reduction as for being resolved that it’s okay for the noise to be there if it happens to be there and nothing can be done about it. To get caught up in a buzzing commentary on how irritating the noise is makes for a noisy relationship with noise. The irritation is something the mind adds.

    /End of quote. Easy to ready, easy to say, hard to do. But worth a try?


  • Kate

    At Sunday Mass, I always feel like someone has turned a large metal trash can upside down over my head and is banging on it with hammers. That is exactly what the music sounds like. Loud, high-pitched, off-key, off-rhythm, intrusive. The percussionist even punctuates the punchlines to the deacon’s jokes during the homily with a ba-da-bing! on the drum set. We might as well be in a cocktail lounge. The musicians occupy so much space at the front right that one entrance to the church is inaccessible to the people, and people sitting on that side of the church can’t even come up to the front of the church to receive Communion but must process towards the back. Father repeatedly interrupts the prayers of the Mass to remark on how wonderful the music group is, and how we should be singing along with them. But we can’t. It’s just too awful.

  • aj4coco

    As a musician, this makes me sad. We don’t have a place to rehearse with our lovely piano other than in church, but we do try to stop practice (and we do not have the microphones on) 10 minutes before Mass. As for singing during the liturgy, my understanding is that music is PART of the liturgy. The Gloria SHOULD be sung. The Alleluia SHOULD be sung. As for changing songs each week, we do that so that the songs are “in tune” with the readings for the day. Maybe some people try to make a performance of it, but they are definitely not in line with what liturgical music should be.

    I’m sorry that so many Mass attendees dislike the music so much.

  • Mark

    Right after reading this, I watched an interesting program on PBS: “The Distracted Mind” with Neuroscientist Adam Gazzaley discussing multitasking and the mind, including the brain’s attention and memory limitations.

    While watching it, I thought part of our problem could be in the overwhelming growth of all the gadgets and facebook, texting, twitter, blogs, emails, cell phone, and more. What he demonstrated is how the actual structure and connections of our brains are changed with various activities. Many are so addicted that focusing on something like reading a book or prayer become like an addict being removed from their drugs. I wonder if some of what we see going on in church is techie addict withdrawl and the accompanying impact on our ability to tone out distrations and interruptions. I know I have trouble if going to get something someone asks a question. I stand there looking around wondering what the heck I was coming to the kitchen for and often settle for a cookie. If you get a chance watch that program. Also saw this on the same topic that he gave in a keynote address somewhere. I am going to try some of his suggestions on improving the old brain cells. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=H8eZlyGfWgQ&feature=related

  • fiestamom

    I wonder why the Responsorial Psalms have to be sung. I don’t understand the words when the cantor sings, it has far more meaning to me if I can hear them spoken. I long for silence after I receive Communion. Instead I have to listen to One Bread, One Body. I want to pray and thank Jesus and be with Jesus. It’s very difficult with singing.

    I am only able to attend Daily Mass once a week, but the silence is beautiful.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny

    At my church it’s relatively silent between masses. The choir doesn’t make much noise, certainly nothing noticable. The organist does warm up, but that’s only five minutes before mass. I usually get a good fifteen to twenty minutes to pray, read the readings of the day, and then the bulletin. It’s quite pleasant for me before mass.

  • http://jscafenette.com Manny


    I would miss the music. Singing is praying twice as St Augustine says. If there were no music, you would see mass attendence drop substantially. That’s why it’s there on Sunday. I guess a quiet sort of mass is relaxing to the soul every so often, but full worship requires a stretching of the soul that only music can bring. Don’t feel sorry. It’s through you we fully praise!