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.