Elizabeth Scalia writes here about the story behind the story of the slouches in the pews. She’s cranky and she’s got it right. I’m going to tell a story now, and if you were there that day kindly shut up about the who-when-where-why-how, because it could have been anywhere. It’s the story of what makes people respect the Mass, and what doesn’t, and why Elizabeth has it right.
So I’m at one of these social-moment Masses, and it doesn’t matter what kind — a funeral, a wedding, a first communion . . . one of those events that brings in the out-of-towners and the barely-Catholic relatives and the gawkers and the well-wishers. One of those things where some of the participants consider the faith more serious than life and death, and other people don’t consider the faith at all.
It was a big event.
We had to be there early, which meant sitting around.
You put a whole lot of people in a room for an hour with nothing to do but catch up on the news, and all kinds of news to catch up upon, and they are going to chat. Even if that room is the nave of your parish church.
So a clergyman ambles out, not someone I know well, but since I get around to different places, I’d heard him preach once or twice. He’s mad about the ruckus. Super mad. He marches up to the pulpit and leans into the mic and scolds, “You are in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament! Show some respect!”
And what happened next is that everyone ignored him.
And the other thing that happened next is that I thought, with my usual dubious amount of charity, Well there you have it sir. They are showing exactly the level of respect you have taught these people to show.
Why would I think this terrible thought? Because in my previous visits to his parish I’d heard the guy preach. I’d heard him dismiss Our Lord’s miracles as mere natural events. I’d heard him spend half an hour and go nowhere but into a few exhortations about the virtues of generic kindness. My few encounters with this man had left an impression of a cleric who didn’t really believe the Catholic faith.
Then something else happened. A woman who had some business related to the day’s festivities came into the nave a few minutes later. She was also a person I’d gotten to know from this and that, and I knew something about her: She took her faith seriously, and she was brimming with love for the people in that room. I knew — though I’m not sure how many other people knew it — that she was the kind of person who gave her all to evangelize.
At least a few of the locals knew her. She stepped up into that space in front of the altar with a paper in hand, and the place went silent. In her sweet, quiet voice she said something like, “I have just a few things to go over before we begin . . .”
And everyone listened.
The out-of-towners, the non-Catholics, the barely-Catholics — everyone.
Edited here to answer a question a reader posed: I can’t even remember what she said. But I remember that after, everything was different. The whole tone in the place was changed. It was more reverent, more respectful, more prayerful.
What was the different? To Cleric Grumpy, the room was full of offensive people who just didn’t get it. To Mrs. Gospel, that room was full of people Jesus was dying to get His arms around.
How do you teach people to respect the Holy Eucharist? By loving God so fully your heart breaks to share the Gospel, your lungs ache, your hands cramp at the thrill of it, because you love the other people nearly as much as Jesus does.
Photo: Walters Art Museum [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons. Click through on the image for some detailed commentary on these sculptures in the Wikimedia “Image Description” field.