Liturgy Matters — Church etiquette: Before Mass begins

By Dr. Judy Bullock

Dr. Judy Bullock
Dr. Judy Bullock

There seems to be some uncertainty about what is expected when entering the church for Sunday liturgy. Some parishioners come into church very reverently, signing themselves with holy water, genuflecting or bowing before going into the pew and then kneeling for some moments of prayer in preparation for the beginning of Mass in a sacred environment.

Others come in with community in mind, making contact with other parishioners, catching up with family and friends. The social atmosphere is alive with chatter. In some parishes in order to get the attention of the assembly before Mass begins, a bell is rung or a gong is struck.

Which is the preferred way? Why is there such disparity?

From the very early accounts of liturgy we learn that gatherings of the small Christian communities took place in the homes of some of the faithful. In the accounts from the prophets, stories of Jesus’ life and a sacred meal were shared with little formalized structure or text.

As the church grew in numbers, a much more formal model of liturgy was the common practice, including the emergence of a professional ministry. Still there were variations from region to region.

By the 16th century the liturgy was rigidly structured with every word and movement of the priest explicitly regulated, although no mention of the faithful can be found. The people attended Mass as silent spectators. This model of liturgy celebrated a transcendent God, the all-knowing, all-powerful, awesome God, far above and distant from humanity.

With the reforms of Vatican II the focus shifted dramatically, focusing on the immanence of God, God’s presence among us.

Today, best practice advises us to hold the center, keeping a balance by maintaining an atmosphere of awe and reverence in the worship space but also respecting the presence of God among us in word, sacrament and in the people — the Body of Christ.

How can we accomplish this balance?

Part of the challenge is the worship space itself. When there is a large entry area or narthex, the transition from outside to the space for the celebration of the liturgy is easily differentiated. These larger gathering spaces were designed in order to provide a place to greet and meet one another before and after Mass.

The baptismal font is placed in the entry as a strong symbol of our entry into our Christian faith beginning at this font. Placing our hand into the holy water and signing ourselves with the cross is a moment of recommitment to our baptismal promise to “put on Christ.” As we pass into the nave or worship area, the atmosphere changes to one of quiet respect until the Mass begins.

The General Instruction of the Roman Missal advises us to hold this time prior to the beginning of Mass as a time to transition from the world we left, preparing ourselves for the celebration of the Eucharist. The division of narthex and nave distinguishes this different atmosphere and respects this period of silent prayer. It is particularly important to respect this atmosphere of prayer when the Blessed Sacrament is reserved within the nave.

In addition to this atmosphere of prayer we also make a gesture of reverence when we enter the worship space. Whether we genuflect on one knee or make a profound bow, bending from the hips with our head down, depends on the location of the tabernacle where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. If the tabernacle is located within the worship space the genuflection is the proper gesture before entering the pew. If the tabernacle is located in a separate chapel, we make a profound bow to the altar.

The church teaches that the primary means of developing community comes from the work we do together in living out our mission of ministry, outreach to the needy and spreading the Gospel message. Then when we gather on Sunday our worship is authentic. We celebrate in spirit and truth, the Body of Christ with Christ our Head.

Dr. Judy Bullock is the director of the Archdiocese of Louisville’s Office of Worship.


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One reply on “Liturgy Matters — Church etiquette: Before Mass begins”
  1. says: Rev. Ronald Knott

    Dear Judy,
    Good column. I have always thought it odd that we spend so much money on building gathering spaces and then prop the doors open between those spaces and the church itself and talk incessantly from the parking lot to the altar. I always ask myself, “Why build doors at all?” The extroverts rule in a lot of the parishes I have attended. We introverts who like quiet in church usually get over ruled. I have been pastor of places where I shut the doors to the gathering space and somebody props them open. I close them again and someone else props them open. Keep up the good work. Write another column about this when you can!
    Fr. Knott

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