Manners and the Mass

In the traditional Latin Mass, there are innumerable acts and marks of formality and reverence. When you enter the church, you cross yourself with holy water. Before sitting down, you genuflect towards our Lord in the tabernacle. Then you kneel and pray. When the altar boys and priest process into the church, following the crucifix, people kneel when the crucifix passes, and many bow their heads towards the priest. At one point in the Mass, an altar boy bows to the congregation and they bow back, upon which he proceeds to incense the congregation. Virtually every movement of the priest is choreographed by the rubrics, sometimes down to the position of the fingers on each of his hands.

These things put me in mind of courtesy and manners. Because what are manners but rubrics which apply to everyday life? Opening doors for women, taking off your hat when you go indoors (back when most everyone wore hats), shaking hands and saying “Pleased to meet you” when being introduced to someone, keeping your elbows off the table, saying “please” and “thank you”, and so forth. Manners are ways of showing respect, which is why people feel disrespected when you act rude, “rude” being pretty much defined as acting with bad manners.

I suppose this explains the many formal gestures at Mass. They comprise an elaborate system of courtesy. Of course the most elaborate and deferential acts of courtesy are reserved for Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, before whom nobody passes without bowing or genuflecting. And you could say that the whole thing is an elaborate act of courtesy towards God the Father, to whom it is offered as an act of worship.

Perhaps this is one facet of Christ’s role in salvation: Without Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, we would not have the Mass. And without the Mass our worship would be pathetic, in the same way that an elaborate act of courtesy towards a monarch might be ridiculous when performed by a pauper in rags. But Christ’s sacrifice of himself to the Father, and our incorporation into Christ’s Body by virtue of our baptism, cause us to be clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27). Christ is King and Priest, and we are members of the Kingdom and priests (Rev. 1:6). Thus by being incorporated with Christ, we can make the elaborate gestures of courtesy to our Father and God, in a fitting manner, without looking ridiculous in dirty rags.

The modern tendency is to erode manners. Everything we do is less formal. We can wear hats indoors; kids call adults by their first names rather than Mr. or Miss; doors often are held open for women (and they generally appreciate it), but you’re no longer considered rude if you don’t.

I see this trend reflected in modern liturgies. An informal atmosphere often prevails. People feel no need to dress up for Mass. They talk at full voice in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, and and often don’t genuflect. Priests begin Mass with a hearty “Good morning!”, and leave the sanctuary to give their homilies and shake hands during the Sign of Peace.

Music may be the most obvious area where the casual atmosphere prevails in modern liturgies. Perhaps this reaches its extreme in so-called “teen Masses”, in which kids dress in clothes that they would wear to the beach or the park, and the music is basically a rock concert, which the congregation accompanies not only with singing but also clapping and dancing.

My theory is that the general eroding of formality and manners in the present day is a result of the leveling out of class distinctions in general. Manners imply that people deserve respect and deference, some more than others. Whereas lack of manners says, “Hey, we’re all the same; man or woman, rich or poor, high or low rank in the corporate hierarchy, doesn’t matter. I don’t call anybody ‘sir’.”

If that is the case in everyday life, then what does the erosion of formality say about attitudes towards the liturgy? If priests are now Fr. Bob instead of Fr. Smith, laymen may dispense Holy Communion and roam about the sanctuary at will, Communion is received standing and in the hand rather than kneeling and on the tongue — does this not reflect a desire and tendency to blur the distinction between clerical and lay?

If the Mass is an act of courtesy towards God the Father, then what is the meaning of the erosion of manners at Mass, and what is likely to be its effect? Does it imply that in our view, even God himself deserves no more respect and courtesy than we ourselves?

[Edit:] Right after posting I came across this post, part of which concerns Lutheran worship, including this paragraph:

“We strive to make every message and every service relevant and applicable to real life, as well as excellent in quality. At the same time, you can come to church in your jeans, or your shorts (or even in your jean shorts) and feel perfectly comfortable in one of our services. Grab a cup of coffee and a bagel on your way in and settle in for a high-octane hour of power-learning about God.”

The message seems to be, “We’ll do whatever you want. Make yourself comfortable. We strive to make worship relevant to you.”

Is this the direction the Mass is heading? I would say clearly it is, and has been for a long time. The only question (in my view) is how far we will take it.

7 thoughts on “Manners and the Mass

  1. is it the direction we are going?
    My guess is no- is it the direction that most
    wish it to go? My guess is YES!!!! We wonder how islam conquered most of the world in so short an amount of time… now we know.


  2. I think there is also an important tension in the mass between the feelings of reverence and intimate friendship, and it should perhaps be the goal to exacerbate our experience of this tension, which I think is our being humbled by God’s own humility. Most clearly in the Eucharist itself, where God is before us under the signs of mere food and drink.
    I think it’s crucial to remember that we can never be sufficiently reverent. But as G.K. Chesterton said in his biography of St. Francis, “It is the highest and holiest of the paradoxes that the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.”
    I suppose my point, if I have one, is that while I don’t understand the liturgy enough to know what’s better for it, the important thing is that I always remember I’m doing it poorly, but doing it for God, and I’m poorly dressed, but dressed for God.


  3. Ignatius,

    I appreciate the comment.

    I agree that there are and should be feelings of both reverence and intimate friendship. I think in a way, they go hand-in-hand. Reverence, submission, humility, obedience, repentance, are all appropriate attitudes that we should have towards God. We have no right to stand before him as his equal. But by his mercy and through Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and our appropriation of that sacrifice in our lives through baptism and the Mass, he makes us his friends, indeed his children. And this gives us all the more reason and desire for revering him.

    I agree that we cannot be sufficiently reverent in the subjective sense. To me this is one of the great things about the Mass: It gives us a prescribed way in which to offer adequate worship, which is not dependent on our individual ability to achieve subjective feelings of reverence.

    [Edit:] This is my concern about much of the modern tendency to “emotionalize” the Mass: It seems to be an effort to make our worship adequate through generating subjective emotions, for example by highly emotive music, clapping, hearty greetings, the priest leaving the sanctuary to gladhand the congregation, and so forth. This, frankly, is the Protestant mode of worship; “worship” being practically synonymous, in many Protestant churches, with emotion: Tears, shouting, clapping, dancing, sweating, etc. Notice that all those things are directed inwards, towards creating a response within each individual “worshipper”, rather than outwards, towards God.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad.
      I completely agree, but just to push my point a little further, I believe it’s not just in the subjective sense that we can’t be sufficiently reverent, but in every way (except perhaps with divine intervention). As we say, “Lord, I am not worthy…”
      I share your concern. That attitude is truly fatal to worship.


  4. Pingback: Manners and the Mass, Part 2 | Agellius's Blog

  5. Pingback: Mass roundup | Petty Armchair Popery

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