Reverence at Mass
A persistent complaint over the past few decades has concerned the perceived decay of appropriate reverence at Mass.
Those of traditionalist stripe tend to blame the Second Vatican Council and its liturgical reforms for this. And it may well be true that the Latin and scent of abundantly distributed incense in the old Mass fostered a certain type of external reverence.
But how people act at Mass has been influenced also by dynamics that are unrelated to the post-Vatican II liturgy.
One of these may relate to a more casual, selective attitude to the Catholic faith in general due to a combination of societal pressures, and to deficiencies in catechesis and formation. While most Catholics treasure the real presence of Our Lord in the appearances of bread and wine at Communion, for many other Catholics the Eucharist is a matter of mere routine.
What exactly amounts to irreverence is mostly subjective — but not always.
The use of cellphones during Mass, for example, may be tolerable when done for urgent professional business, but texting for private purposes is objectively lacking in respect, to both the liturgy and other congregants.
A common complaint revolves around the way people dress for Mass. While most pilgrim churches around the world — such as those in the Holy Land, Rome, Lourdes or Fatima — apply strict dress codes that govern entry, there usually are no such formalised regulations in parish churches.
The prescribed dress code in pilgrim churches certainly serves as a good guide: no shorts that sit above the knee for men and women (or, in some churches, no shorts at all), no short dresses or skirts for women, no bare shoulders or backs for women. Flip-flops are discouraged as well.
It is safe to say that one takes no risks of causing offence to other congregants at the parish Mass if one is guided by this sartorial code.
And while the notion that women who dress “immodestly” cause male congregants to have impure thoughts is chauvinistic, church probably is not the right place in which to wear hotpants.At the same time, we must beware of judging the reverence of others by their dress. For one thing, fashions change.
Not too long ago it was a norm that one would wear “Sunday best” to church. Today, very few people in South Africa would think of wearing a suit on Sunday (or, increasingly, on any day). Jeans, once frowned upon, are now standard wear. And fashions will keep evolving.
There is also the question of climate and local culture. In a country with hot summers, for example, it may be seen as permissible for a man to wear shorts at Mass, if this is a culturally acceptable norm.
Clothes tend to reveal little about a person’s character. A threadbare suit may be a poor man’s best, while an elegant designer suit may be another man’s fifth-best. We simply cannot measure the reverence or character of congregants by their clothes.
There are other areas where we could misjudge people at Mass. Sometimes we might see congregants doing things which seem irreverent — drinking water or eating, for instance. While this may indeed be neglectful behaviour, it could also be prompted by necessity, such as a medical condition (ideally, this should be first cleared with the parish priest).
Much as perceived irreverence might scandalise us, we mostly have little idea about the interior disposition of those whom we feel tempted to pass judgment on. The man who never genuflects or the woman wearing hotpants may well have no appreciation for the Mass — or it might be that the man has a knee injury and the young woman maintains a more exemplary Christian life than we do, her choice of dress notwithstanding.
Conversely, some congregants might exhibit all the external signs of pious reverence, but are insincere in doing so.
How are we to judge? And who are we to judge others?
Of course, we should not tolerate flagrant transgressions, and we, as church communities, ought to aspire to certain standards.
But first we must find a broad consensus on what these standards are, and how they are then to be applied and encouraged.