Our Gestures at Mass Really Do Matter

When I lived in the northeast I had an embarrassment of riches in terms of the availability of Masses. There were 27 options for daily Mass within five miles of my northern home. At our new home on the border of the Carolinas there are only two or three options within 15 miles.

Visiting different churches to attend daily Mass is eye-opening. Often you can tell by the interior layout of the church if it is a more traditional Catholic church (e.g., tabernacle in the middle behind the altar, Christ crucified not hovering, an altar rail) or a more modern Catholic church (sometimes jokingly called a Church of the Fifth Joyful Mystery because it seems Jesus is lost in the house of worship) with a less traditional congregation and liturgy.

Beware of generalizations! The Basilica of Mary Help of Christians at Belmont Abbey is one of the oldest churches in the south, so judging the book by its nineteenth-century cover, I assumed its interior would have the markings of an old-line Catholic church. The façade did not belie what was inside: a monstrous modern art cross above the altar and a tabernacle off in a transept hidden from the congregation. Yet, the non-traditional interior did not portend a non-traditional liturgy. Just the opposite. The monks and Belmont Abbey College students at the Masses are models of classical Catholic practices. The Mass, the music, the homilies, and the behavior of the communicants are all traditional. The only element lacking is the public prayer to St. Michael after Mass.

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At more traditional Catholic churches, there is generally present a formality and reverence often missing from certain “Kumbaya Catholic” parishes. For instance, at Belmont Abbey, students and other attendees come in quietly, and if they are late for Mass they don’t walk up the center aisle to occupy what they believe to be “their” seat but silently take the first available seat in the rear. They genuflect when passing the tabernacle, strike their breast at “through my fault…,” and bow during the appropriate clause in the Creed. They pray the Lord’s Prayer, not holding hands, but with folded hands. Some kneel to receive the Sacred Body and Precious Blood, and after the priest says, “The Mass has ended,” they don’t rush to the exit or stand in the pews and chat. They kneel in prayer in extended thanksgiving.

And so it is that our actions indeed do speak louder than our words, especially in church. Cardinal Robert Sarah, appointed by Pope Francis to be the Prefect for Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, wrote about the Mass and the serious crisis of faith in his essay “Adapting the Liturgy to Our Decadence.” He says, “[W]e cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation, and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodeling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas. They forgot that the liturgical act is not just a PRAYER, but also and above all a MYSTERY in which something is accomplished for us that we cannot fully understand but that we must accept and receive in faith, love, obedience, and adoring silence. And this is the real meaning of active participation of the faithful. It is not about exclusively external activity, the distribution of roles or of functions in the liturgy, but rather about an intensely active receptivity: this reception is, in Christ and with Christ, the humble offering of oneself in silent prayer and a thoroughly contemplative attitude.”

This is not to dismiss as irreverent or lackadaisical those who do not follow the example of the Belmont Abbey students. It no longer disturbs me when older parishioners gather and loudly discuss their latest doctor’s visit or the ailments of their friend before or after Mass because I came to the realization that for many, church is their only human interaction of the day, the “social media” of the older generation, if you will. As the last three popes have reminded us, loneliness is one of the greatest illnesses of our time. If chit-chatting after Mass combats loneliness for them, it may be more meaningful than whatever poor silent prayers I could offer.

I also know that some Catholics who are far more faithful than I march to the beat of a different drum. (Sometimes literally, like the beat of the snare drum at the 8 a.m. Sunday Mass at one of the other Catholic churches near our southern home.) The new pastor at that church arranged for a Lenten series about the Mass based on a fine book written by neighboring pastor, Fr. Matthew Buettner, Understanding the Mystery of the Mass.

Although the instructor of the Lenten series made it clear that the proper posture for the Our Father during Mass is with hands folded, the message didn’t get through to many who continue to spread their arms imitating the gesture of the celebrant. They are likely unaware that “some gestures and postures are reserved for the priest-celebrant.” According to Father Bryan Babick of the Diocese of Charleston, in his Catholic Miscellany column “Praying with gestures,” since the time of Moses, both Jewish and Christian traditions have reserved extended hands as a priestly gesture, much like Moses elevating his hands resulted in battle victories for the Israelites. Each has his role, Moses or the celebrant of the Mass as leader, and the Israelites or the congregants, as those led.” Father Babick likens this diversity of roles to “the right foot work[ing] in tandem with the left … in unison to advance us in motion.”

 Our body language at Mass matters because “every part of the body is an expressive instrument of the soul. [W]hen we stand in God’s presence in heart-felt reverence and humility, the open hands are laid together palm against palm in sign of steadfast subjection and obedient homage, as if to say that the words we ourselves would speak are in good order and that we are ready and attentive to hear the words of God. Or it may be a sign of inner surrender. These hands, our weapons of defense, are laid, as it were, tied and bound together between the hands of God,” according to Father Roman Guardini in Sacred Signs.

In his book, That Nothing May Be Lost, Father Paul Scalia reminds us, “Mother Church trains us in the integrity of worship. In the Mass she unites our words and actions. As we make the sign of the cross, we say, ‘In the name of the Father….’ As we say that we have sinned through our own fault, we strike our breast. As we confess the Incarnation, we bow low. Our words become flesh.”

Father Scalia joked in one lecture that he can always tell when non-Catholics are at Mass. They follow the lead of those around them in making the sign of the cross. But when the Gospel comes and the regular Mass-goers trace the cross on their foreheads then their lips, the visitors get “faked out and wind up giving a signal to steal third base,” as Father puts it. As humorous a mental picture as that creates, there is a sadness when baptized Catholics don’t know the proper gestures at Mass.

This point is driven home at Catholic funerals. At one recent funeral I attended the priest had to say at each point, “please stand” or “please kneel” as if he were leading a game of “Simon Says.” (Let us not forget that St. Peter’s given name was Simon.) I’ve often felt that the condolences at a Catholic funeral Mass should be for the hordes of people there, who, judging from their demonstrated unfamiliarity with the Mass rituals, apparently haven’t been going to Mass every Sunday. The graces they are missing out on are so sadly staggering.

Beyond this, missing Mass on Sundays or Holy Days of Obligation without good cause can be a mortal sin if all of the elements of mortal sin are present. Yet, some people may take communion “to show respect for the deceased” or for “family harmony” or “because everyone else is doing it” not mindful of the fact that to receive unworthily, that is, to receive communion while knowingly in state of mortal sin, is a sacrilege: another mortal sin. At a Catholic funeral the body of one dead person may be present, but how many souls may be dying? Let us pray an all-loving God will judge mercifully those of us who have offended him in such ways.

But believing that it is always better to suggest a solution when pointing out a problem, I’ve left instructions for my funeral that the priest give a brief explanation of who may worthily receive and then instruct people not to take communion if they don’t meet those requirements. I’ve also asked the funeral director, who is my cousin (I’m Italian and we Italians have cousins in every profession), to try to arrange for extra priests on hand, if possible, to hear confessions during the funeral Mass and to announce that it was my last wish that people go to confession at that time.

I’m sure it will raise some eyebrows. But I also pray it will raise a soul or two to a better state.

(Photo credit: Lawrence OP / flickr)


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