The other day I celebrated a wedding for my Brother. It was a modest, yet beautiful celebration. Before the celebration got started I went up to the Altar and started putting things in order. In usual, Catholic tradition fashion, I worked in silence, not initiating any conversations with those coming in the pews. Having finished my work I genuflected and went back to the preparation area in the back of the church. A few minutes later my Grandmother, a non-Catholic, comes to the back of the church a little upset and gently admonishes me for not greeting her and generally feeling a little ignored by her grandson. I listened to her, gave her a hug, and told her that I was a little preoccupied by the details of the wedding, and reassured her that it wasn’t anything personal. She left reassured and the uncomfortable incident passed, but I started thinking about this clash of expectations and why the silence of Catholic Churches is often perceived as “unwelcoming.”
Our Protestant brothers seem to be really good at welcoming. While one protestant Church is not the same as another, and I do not have a whole lot of experience hanging around protestant Churches, I think it is general safe to say that they treat their Churches like meeting halls, places of community. They come in, they say hi to each other, talk about how their week has been, and generally have greater social interaction in the Church space. When those who are of a protestant persuasion come to a Catholic Church they can be put off, even offended, by our silence in this sacred space.
However, this clash of expectations is not merely a Protestant vs Catholic phenomenon. Even within the Catholic Church there are some who preach that the Church is a place of “Community,” the “Ekklesia” the place of gathering. We need to be getting out of our pews and bonding, getting to know each other. They resist the cold, formalism of the Roman Liturgy. This view of the Church as a “meeting place” often runs up against the tradition of the Church as a “sacred space” to which due reverence is owed; this reverence which is shown by silence.
These two perspectives, the source of endless debate, are not at odds with each other. While silence can be a way of avoidance, so can social interaction. Silence is not opposed to community but, in its healthy form, it is a sign of a mature community. A true friend is one with whom you can sit in silence with and not need to say anything.
This was my own personal experience living in a religious, monastic style, community. As you and your brothers practiced the discipline of silence in the house there was an ever greater bond of fraternity. No felt pressure to come up with conversation, a greater freedom to reflect and pray, and times of conversation had greater meaning. Our mutual fidelity to times and places of silence was the greatest gift we could give to each other.
However, silence as an expression of community, of intimacy, is the fruit of a mature community, a community that has already entered into a relationship with each other; that has already entered into a sort of commitment with each other. This is ultimately where some of the disparity shows itself.
In the early Church the event of Baptism and Confirmation was a necessary prerequisite for being part of the Divine Liturgy. They referred to the celebration of the memorial of the Lord’s Supper as the “Mystery” and unless you had made a “covenant” with God and the community through the rites of initiation (Baptism, Confirmation, and First Eucharist) you could not attend the Mass. Thus the celebration of the Christian liturgy was never meant to be the place of “getting to know each other,” it is not designed to be a means of evangelization This was the celebration of a community that had come to know each other, committed to grow in holiness with each other, and thus, when they came together for liturgy they entered into silence with each other.
The Liturgy was also an organized place of prayer. Anyone who has gone to a football game knows the power of group participation and uniformity in action. The witness value of a group of people acting in unison has the capacity to build up the whole. It also is a tremendous act of humility, self-denial, and cooperation.
In light of this are two main points that I want to make.
First; properly speaking community building, evangelization, and outreach belong outside of the Sacred Liturgy. In the recent years, out of necessity, and imitating protestant models, we’ve been monkey rigging our Liturgies to be more “Welcoming” with words of welcome before Mass, special announcements, welcoming new parishioners, etc. . . . In a sense, we’ve been trying to make the liturgy do what it was never designed to do which tends to make both the work of welcoming and the work of liturgy to be ineffective. This is not to condemn these actions, we have to do what we have to do, but it is important to understand the whole before you meddle with the parts. The Sacred Liturgy is an advanced form of prayer, the fruit of a committed Christian community. It presumes that you are initiated and have been properly catechized into the mysteries of the Faith. It does not explain itself and it makes no excuses for the demands it places on individuals. It’s designed for a community that has moved beyond the warm and fussies and is ready to get down to business.
Second; this work of welcoming, outreach, socialization needs to happen, it is an essential part of the Church’s life. It is not a decoration. The act of “hanging out” before and after Mass is an essential part of a healthy Christian life. Parties, meals, gathering, ministries, working together in some form of social outreach or evangelization are part of the preparation for and fruit of the Liturgy. If our only interaction with the Church is Mass on Sunday then we are failing to live our faith life and we are failing our fellow Christians. If we have not immersed ourselves into Christian living, suffered and worked alongside our brothers and sisters in Christ, then we will never understand what the Mass is about.
In the past the Church has done rather well with building community and evangelization. In our modern times, with greater mobility and general individualism, community and family have suffered. Without the frame work of a Christian community the individual Christian cannot hope to persevere in the Faith. The Christian will always be called to live in a way contrary to the world and the world will never give them any support with regard to fidelity. However, if we keep treating the Mass as the primary means of integrating individuals into the community we are placing on that frame work a burden it was never meant to carry.