To the Pew End-Squatters, Move Over

Tammy Ruiz - Isle


I love to watch the EWTN show The Journey Home where converts are interviewed and have a chance to tell their stories. It is common to hear the converts speak of how difficult it is to give up congregations that were warm, friendly, and welcoming for a Catholic parish where they seemed invisible and no one seemed to care that they are there.

When my (then) new husband suggested I consider entering the Catholic Church, I was reluctant to even consider it based on the initial “feeling” I sensed when entering the building for Mass. People didn’t speak to one another, they seemed aloof and cold. It took me a while to learn that sanctuaries were never meant to be social halls and that, at its core, Catholic liturgy was more structured and contemplative than many other churches.

I consider it a great blessing that I came to love the liturgy and contemplative nature of our Faith, but I still struggle . . .

I have discussed the whole “no one ever speaks to each other at Mass” issue with folks who explained that some of our churches are so big with so many Masses, it is easy to go a while without ever seeing the same person twice, so no wonder. For me more recently, my daughter prefers to not linger after Mass, so even though my extroverted self would love to chat folks up in the social hall, I most often defer to her wishes. When my nest is empty, I plan to stay as long as I like.

There is, however, another trait of our Catholic-Church-going culture that I think is unwelcoming and even after 22 years of regular Mass going, I honestly don’t understand it. I bring it up, though, because I believe that with just a bit of mindful kindness, we could vastly improve how we treat each other when we come together as a faith family.

I have lived and travelled all over the US and see this dynamic everywhere.

The issue on my mind is “end-squatting”.

Our culture loves our personal space. If you enter a sanctuary 10 minutes before Mass you will likely see every pew with the ends occupied on both sides and vast unclaimed real estate in the center.

At its worst, I have many times received stink eye or death stare from the end squatters who seem seriously annoyed that I would dare try to get by. This genuinely puzzles me as I simply cannot grasp how people at the end of a pew can convince themselves that no one will need to get by.

Just today I saw an older gentleman nearly fall trying to get past two able bodied people who, at first held fast to their prime seats and then had a change of heart and decide to move in. What a kindness they could have given him if they had simply left him an open spot.

It also seems to me that the same folks who give the stink eye to young families who have to fall over themselves trying to file into the center of the pew also glare at the parents who then can\’t easily get out of that same pew when one little one shrieks and another has to pee. Let the parent with the squirmy loud baby sit on the end in case they feel the need to make a quick exit.

My heart hurts at the thought of folks who are really struggling and sensitive to nasty scowls and unwelcoming attitudes. They might be returning to Church after a long absence. They may have anxiety problems. Or maybe they have never been in a Catholic Church before. I wince at the message I fear we send to visitors about how much we value each other\’s presence.

Even when overt hostility is not involved, the end-squatter-passing always seems much harder than it needs to be. How much easier it would be if we simply filled the pews from the center outward while treating our fellow parishioners like the treasures they are rather than competitors in a land grab.

We are encouraged to get ourselves into a prayerful state of mind prior to Mass. For some, that includes kneeling, eyes closed and hands folded. It is human nature when we come across a person in such a posture to not want to disturb him or her so we stand in the aisle and await a break in the prayer to try to settle ourselves. Imagine how much easier it will be if the pray-er just scoots into the center and prays undisturbed.

So what do I suggest? Well, surely some people need an easy exit…the folks with special tasks in Mass often already have special seating, but among the normal congregation, there are all sorts of people who might really need to sit on the end for reasonable and valid reasons. With that understood, if every able bodied person with no little kids (especially the ones who arrive early) come in and sit in the center of the pew, imagine how welcoming our sanctuaries would feel and look to those juggling kids, visiting for the first time, or struggling with too much anxiety to ask a stranger to move.

I get that we like the end spot; its convenient and comfy. What I’m suggesting is a little sacrifice for the greater good. The homily that the welcomed visitor hears might be exactly what the visitor needed. The flustered parent who is at the end of the rope might feel like given a kind chance to regroup. You can smile at and greet a new person who might have otherwise stood alone along a wall.

When my physical spot in Mass feels like a burden, I reflect on the many people in the world who don’t have the freedom or opportunity to participate in Mass the way we have come to expect. There are so many in our long history who have genuinely suffered to attend Mass, my little inconvenience is a way for me to remember their greater sacrifices and reflect how blessed I am to get a chance to go to Mass at all.

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62 thoughts on “To the Pew End-Squatters, Move Over”

  1. My wife and I have been struggling with this lately, having two kids (aged six and two). I’ll readily admit that we should be willing to bear the inconvenience of struggling past end-squatters, particularly in comparison with what God did for us on the cross. I’ll also admit that we should get to mass earlier. However, even if I concede that this entire problem is completely our fault, I still can’t help but wonder: Why do end-squatters end-squat? At this point, I’m just curious. Why do they do it? My wife and I have noticed that the majority of them don’t appear to have any mobility issues. We’ve also noticed that virtually none of them get up to go the bathroom during mass, so that’s not it, either. So why do they do it? In addition to this, when I was young and single, I always sat in the middle of the pew, precisely for the reasons this article was written. It’s just obvious common sense. So, is it my family’s fault we don’t get to mass earlier? Of course it is. Would this be a non-issue for us if we got to mass earlier? Guilty as charged. …But if I’m being completely candid, watching end-squatters (who clearly have no mobility issues and never get up to go to the bathroom) continue to guard their coveted spot and repeatedly scrunch up their legs sideways four or five times a Sunday for the struggling family of five who needs to arrive, take their kids to the bathroom or the cry room once or twice, and then leave at the end of mass looks… well, awkward and ridiculous.

  2. Your message was clear and right on!! Now how about an article about short shorts on girls, mothers who swing and sway with no baby in their arms, hair flipping, and those who look like they are continually posting on a horse the entire mass. Sorry to sound negative, but when you are one who sits in the middle and you are trying to concentrate on Father and the Mass; looking through the crowd, it’s the above mentioned things that I think are rude. Crying babies and families are not a problem, and let the end of pew people enjoy the ends, I’ll just climb right over them, with a big smile and a “how are ya?”. Truly, thank God for everyone who actually does attend church. Everyone needs to lighten up and “offer it up”; it’s only one hour of discomfort to praise our Lord. Much less time than Jesus spent on the Cross for us.

  3. Amen!
    A related issue, which I’ve never been able to understand, is why do most Catholics sit near the back or on the outer wings when they can see that there are plenty of seats available much closer to where the action is?
    Then when other people come later (yes I know they SHOULD have been more organised and got there earlier, but some have valid excuses or might be non-Catholics just checking out the scene) they have to stand at the back because they can’t see past all the bodies in the rear pews to see that the front few pews are nearly empty; or they can see the empty pews but are too embarrassed to walk up past everybody to sit down in them, or think, maybe they are reserved for VIPs.
    I am hgenuinely puzzled why Catholics do this. Is it a sort of false humility out of a misinterpretation of Gospel passages such as “take the lowest seat at a banquet” and of the parable of the pharisee and the publican who prayed at the back of the Temple? Or is that they don’t really want to be there and want to be able to make a quick getaway as soon as possible without anyone else noticing? Are they afraid that someone might think they are “more churchy” than they are and ask them to do something?

  4. When I first came back to the Church my asthma was acting up and I never really know when the coughing will start. Though I’m alone, I sit on the end, near the back, in case I have one of the coughing attacks and have to leave quickly so others can hear the service. It never occurred to me that I was hogging an end spot. I always stand to let others enter and leave if they must. I hope no one thinks badly of me for this.

    1. I wrote this to challenge the people who clog up the end spot out of sheer preference. I mentioned a number of times that Im not faulting anyone who has a compelling physical need to have to step out or is limited in their capacity to move freely in a pew…in fact I am defending the idea of leaving the end spaces open for people with compelling needs. There are a lot of conditions and situations that arent obvious so we’re all “on our honor” to be gracious and generous which is kind of the point in the first place..if you were having a hard day and were concerned you might have a coughing spell, wouldnt it be kind to have a free spot and not have it taken by a person who clogged the whole pew because they simply prefer to have more personal space?

    2. I’m a convert from the Episcopal church and can’t tell you how relieved I was to find your article, Tammy. The environment in the RCC is very very different, and not at all what I have experienced in other denominations which are warm, welcoming and vibrant. After many years of discernment, visiting quite a few Catholic churches and getting to know each community, I found it was always the same. Even when special “welcoming efforts” are made in some parishes, the attitude seems stale and forced. When you walk in, so many people, to your right and to your left, are cold, distant, almost hostile. And, during the service, very few people actually sing or pay attention. They seem distracted and bored, resentful almost because they are submitting to obligation, not attending out of spiritual hunger. Some gossip the entire time about the person in the pew ahead of them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people snickering at their fellow Christians during Mass. DURING MASS. Think about it.

      As to the issue of pew hogging, of course, everyone understands those with special needs, whatever they may be. We are not addressing that here, so, no excuses allowed, folks. It’s parishioners who stand in your way, either coming in, or trying to leave, who are at fault. What is it with you guys? The bigger problem is the basic attitude behind this behavior, because it shows up in countless other ways. This is just one of the obvious ones. Why so mean? In the regular “outside world”, this would immediately be called rudeness and wouldn’t be tolerated. Manners, if nothing else, dictate a certain courtesy, and in a religious environment, that requirement is certainly magnified.
      If, truly, the precious Body and Blood of our Saviour is being received, then why isn’t that reflected in instinctive kindness?

    3. Why so mean?

      They’re thinking about all the faithful who left, the ones sleeping in, the
      ones who will or can not receive communion, the sermon just delivered
      and how it tweaked their conscience, the people from the merged or closed parish next to them, the home they’re going back to or the one they left, the current pope, a disgraced bishop, the wonderful priest who was transferred
      and the (fill in the blank) who replaced him, one of the few married priests
      from a Protestant background saying the mass, the altar girls or the lack
      thereof, the holier than thous, one of the parables that is not explained or understood differently, the music and rote responses that no longer resonate.
      In the end no matter how disconcerting it seems, the question you need to
      be asking is: Why do they come ?

    4. No. Preoccupation with other things does not a mean person make. And, I know why they attend mass. They have been told it is a mortal sin not to. So they do. The bigger question still is, what is making them mean?

    5. No, your way off on the mortal stuff. Just come back on a holy day of
      obligation and you’ll see attendance down 80% with those missing coming
      to communion the following Sunday. They come because it’s tradition,
      ritual, routine, to pray and petition, for a break from the homes their going
      back to and the ones they left, the wonderful priest and new one their
      curious about, the music they like and to meet neighbors family and friends.

  5. And then the end sitters arise and say: “I confess to almighty God and to you my brothers an sisters that I have greatly sinned.” Solution if you want an end-get to Mass early and pray. And there is a way to have an end at almost every Mass-make whatever sacrifice is needed to go to daily Mass-in practically every church, basilica, shrine and chapel in America you will be guaranteed the choice of whichever end you like.

  6. The irony was not lost on me that my gentleman-companion and I decided to take our daughters to a play and as it was a nearly sold out show, the only seats left were all on the very ends of the rows…one in front of another.

    I have no idea why play-goers would all avoid the aisle seats while church goers battle for them. (It was consistent too…empty seats at the end all over based on the ticket-buying map). I wonder …perhaps when people buy “best available” tickets, they venue automatically sells tickets from the center outwards…maybe they know something we dont know!

    When we sat down, a nearby fellow offered to swap seats to get us in the same row. I was appreciative of his kindness but then he said something that amused me in the wake of this discussion “What I really want is to sit on the end!!”

  7. I am guilty! Please forgive but I would be a basket case if I had to move to the middle.
    Most of the time I feel selfish by occupying the end seat.
    I am 86 in years and many say I look much younger. That is a handicap since those
    who don’t know me and my litany of medical and mental issues expect me to be a
    gymnist. If a family appears to want to join me in that particular row I will get out with
    a sweet smile and allow them to move in. Until Mass begins I stake a lookout for those
    who wish me to “scrooch over.”
    I am keenly perceptive about the feelings and needs of others. I cannot help it.
    I do have a couple of complaints. One is the young ladies who are constantly fussing
    with their hair, especially if they have bon bons on the top of their heads. The other
    is the loving wife and mother who feels the need to rub or scratch the backs of their
    loved ones during most of the Mass.
    I also like to sit in the back of the church so I am not too far from the ladies room.
    Does that ease your pain sweet Tammy?

    1. Part of the benefit of social media is the open exchange of ideas and feelings. A writer proposes an idea then the issue is open for discussion…maybe comments are convincing enough to sometimes even sway the opinion of the person who brought up the topic in the first place. A few folks brought up ideas that had not previously occurred to me.

      If you read all the comments you might agree that there is some underlying animosity that is generally not dealt with and I see a benefit to airing this out in a safe and respectful environment. Im glad I brought this up because there is some progress to be made. This isnt just about me …its about the young moms that JenS describes above who finally got enough glares that they quit going to Mass.

      “Does that ease your pain sweet Tammy?” – Im not seeing what this added to the discourse.

  8. I sit in the second row, in the middle. However when I’m “forced” to sit in the middle rows (first communion masses for example), I MUST sit on the end. All those people in front of me is very distracting and I can’t see or hear a blessed thing, let alone where the priest is.

  9. I have an entirely different view of your “unfriendly” Cathilics. All of that socialization is TOTALLY out of place inside of the actual church, anyway!! The number one reason for fhe sacrifice of the mass is to offer worship to God the Father and gain all the graces we need to serve each other at all other times. Socialize AFTER Mass and during all of the other community opportunities a parish gives. Before mass, we should be speaking to God, not each other.
    That said, if I arrive early enough to pray, as I should, I will want to be in the middle of the pew so I won’t be disturbed by having to move – and you won’t disturb my private, pre-mass conversation with God with your “friendly chatter” – we will talk once we get into the vestibule after mass (again so we don’t disturb those praying in thanksgiving immediately after mass).

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