My First Time Attending a Catholic Mass

Written: 25 September, 1999

This afternoon I went to the local Catholic church and attended a worship service (or whatever they call it) there. It was listed in the pamphlet as a "liturgy." Here's how it went.

I brought along my Bible, thinking that I might need it to look up a verse or something. As it turns out, I didn't need it. There was a large crowd in attendance. I figured the audience might be big because it was a Saturday.

I walked in the door facing the street (which was opened wide), into the sanctuary. Turns out that probably wasn't the right door to come in, because there were 2 people at the side doors, were the majority of people entered, standing there to hand them the little pamphlet with the words to some of the songs. When I noticed that, I got back up and got a pamphlet from them and sat back down.

I'd arrived a little early and saw the room gradually fill up. Most of the people were older folks but there were several young people and kids, too. I noticed that in the pews there was a little slot that held some envelopes, and the envelopes said to the "guests" that there was no collection plate and that guests could leave a contribution in one of the envelopes provided and drop it off somewhere. Which was one less thing I had to worry about.

The first thing that happened was that the guy who played the organ said that there would be a new closing tune and he'd run through it once and then we could sing along the second time. I found that I picked it up rather quickly but felt a little odd singing (few people near me were really audible), which is too bad because I like singing (albeit in the style of guys like Lennon and McCartney). So my muted singing probably sounded pretty bad, but as long as the words were in front of me and I could follow along, I wanted to sing.

I noticed that when people came in, they tended to bow or cross themselves at the sight of the altar, even if they were some rows back. That struck me as a little strange, and I wonder if that is a common Christian church practice. I also wondered if these people really felt the prescence of God in that object (whatever it was they were bowing just looked like an altar to me) or if it was simply a ceremonial or traditional thing that they got into the routine of doing.

I tried not to look or stare at anyone, though, and really I just wanted to close my eyes and pray, but I was kind of too fearful of what might happen next to concentrate. There was a lot of standing up and sitting back down again at various points that I'd not anticipated. I had to be ready to jump to my feet at a moment's notice, whereas everyone else seemed to already know what to do.

The mass (again, I'm not sure if that is the right word) started out with the pastor asking us all to stand facing a pool in the middle of the room. He recited some kind of blessing for the pool and then, to my horror, asked us all to come and do something like baptise ourselves in its water while the organist and singers sang "Come to the Water" (or some such). Apparently people were supposed to just walk up and dip their fingers in the pool and then pat it on their heads or something. I tried to get out of everyone's way, inconspicuously, and felt a little foolish because I didn't know how to do that "crossing one's self" hand gesture either.

Anyway, then everyone eventually sat back down and a woman recited a parable for about 2 minutes, and then there was another song, and then the pastor spoke for a few minutes, and then the woman got back up and spoke again for a few minutes. I was surprised that there was no sermon. I went there hoping to hear a sermon and there wasn't one. The whole spectacle consisted of ritual, stuff that the congregation has probably done a zillion times over. Why do they keep coming?

I noticed that sometimes the pastor would sing something instead of saying it. It's a good thing he had a good voice, although perhaps a bit too stagey, like he was trying to sound British or something. He was dressed in a kind of green robe type thing and several times he just sat on the stage while things went on, with what seemed to me like a kind of stern expression in his eyes as he viewed the crowd. I kept wanting him to get up out of the chair and stay standing at the podium so I could hear a sermon. Whenever he sat back down I felt like a ritual coming on. Sometimes when he'd say something, the congregation would chant something back in reply, but it didn't sound like "amen," so I couldn't even play along. It sounded like Latin. (I picked up their newsletter when I left and saw that they had such "reply" bits in a box titled "Family Prayer Corner." The piece reads: "Take time, this year, to incorporate some of the Liturgy prayers into your family time. Prayers like:

Adult: The Lord be with you.
All: And also with you.")

Another moment of surprise came when the pastor (or maybe the woman) said something about greeting your neighbor. Suddenly, a few rows in front of me, I see a man and woman kissing (husband & wife obviously). For a second, I was wondering what the heck I'd gotten myself into: would I have to kiss some stranger?? As it turned out, most people were just shaking hands with each other. I shook the hands of the people around me as they were offered to me, and I extended my hand to anyone willing to shake it. I noticed that as the hands were shook, the people said something that sounded like "Peace be with you" so I said "Peace be with you" to them (only I kind of mumbled it under my breath in case I was saying the wrong phrase).

Then they got the communion thing going. I thought that I might be able to look inconspicuous if everyone just had to walk up to the altar to get the food from the pastor, but as it happens, they had several members of the audience standing at various points in the sanctuary to give people the stuff. At one point I was the only one around me still sitting down and not going to get communion. One little kid, coming back from getting the communion, shot me a glance as he passed me, perhaps wondering why I was still sitting there.

Anyway, the pastor said something like "This ends the Liturgy. Go in peace." And they started up that new closing song again. Most people stuck around to sing the closing song, but I noticed that some people near the back were getting up and leaving at this point. I thought that I'd stay until the song ended, and stay until this ceremony totally ended, because I didn't want to miss out on observing any part of it. But then I wondered if there might be some special Catholic thing happening after the Liturgy, and I thought I'd better get out now while other people were leaving. Because what if after the closing song ended they started up some whole new Catholics-only thing and nobody could leave without looking conspicuous? Then I'd really look the fool. Well, as I left, it looked like more people started coming out of the church, so maybe the people just wanted to stay and finish the final song or perhaps have a word with the pastor as they filed out. Who knows.

All I know is that I walked home holding my Bible and I looked at the sky and I thought, "Gee, I feel the prescence of God more in that sky than I did in that church." And then I remembered how Goldenager said that Catholics believe God is really truly present during their mass, but how I didn't feel anything uplifting in there. I felt like I would have gotten more out of having sat in the park reading my Bible than sitting in that church where my Bible remained closed, and where I was probably the only guest who brought one along.

And then I wondered why people keep harping on the need for going to a church.

I didn't feel that the service was aimed at me.

I did like when the pastor made a brief statement about how Jesus said "the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of Heaven before you." He also said that as Christians it is important for us to do good, seek justice, etc., in addition to following God. The comment suggested to me that following God is a natural extension of following the good, justice, etc. But that talk was all too brief.

Tomorrow morning I go to the Presbyterian church, attending first the pastor's class on Colossians (which I read's really short) and then for the worship service afterwards. I'll let you all know how that goes tomorrow. I hope it goes okay. If it doesn't.... well, I don't think I'm likely to be a church go-er if it doesn't work out for me.