Modesty of words and actions in the Church

Last week I wrote about modesty of words and actions in family life. This week now I need to speak about modesty of words and actions in the life of the Church. Our identity has, we could say, two fundamental poles, our origin from our parents and our new birth to God in baptism.

Our normal, most concrete relation to the Church, is through the parish and the life of the parish finds its most concrete expression at Sunday Mass. Nevertheless, we need always to keep in mind that the Church is not just ‘my parish’, that in the Church we are always part of a much greater reality, not just worldwide, but a reality that stretches across time, and partakes of eternity. For that reason, modesty in the Church is never just a matter of what is done here and now, but a matter of how things are and have been done in the Church in view of eternal life.

Let us start at the altar.

I have given the altar servers three watchwords: reverence, attention, and devotion. Reverence is something more than respect by which we acknowledge outwardly the greatness of God and the persons and things (sacred things) that belong to God. Attention is the focus of the mind, showed outwardly by the body, on the task at hand or the action at the altar. Devotion is the inward attitude that places us at God’s service saying, “Here I am, Lord, I come to do your will.”

The outward expressions of reverence and attention, in accordance with the tradition and law of the Church, and the proper role of each person, are the standard of modesty at Mass and other liturgical celebrations. No one serving at the altar should call attention to himself, but rather to the greatness of what takes place upon the altar.

Recently I was struck by a little exchange at the altar that went as it should. Two altar servers brought the water and wine to the altar, as a team, presented me first with the wine, then the water, waited together until I was done preparing the chalice, and then returned my bow before bringing the cruets back to the credence table.

I will remark only on the little gesture of the bow. We do not say “please” and “thank you” during the Mass, but that little bow, first on my part, was a symbolic “thank you” and returning the bow was a symbolic, “you are welcome”. The bows are done in a discreet manner that far from taking away from the centrality of the altar, shows that both priest and altar servers are engaged in a common task of serving the Lord at the altar.

Everything that takes place in the altar area (the sanctuary) should for its part foster reverence, attention, and devotion among the faithful in the pews, but is also a sort of instruction, showing symbolically how in the household of God we should relate to God and to each other.

The movements and actions of those who serve in the sanctuary are subject to much more detailed prescriptions than the movement and actions of the faithful in the pews. Nevertheless, just as reverence, attention, and devotion should characterize the movements and actions of those who serve in the sanctuary, they should characterize the movements and actions of the whole congregation.

Normally, the faithful should sit, stand, and kneel together at the prescribed times. Nevertheless, they can adapt their movements to their physical limitations. They also have the freedom, for example, to kneel when they receive holy communion.

As a general rule they should not act in a way too call attention to themselves, though parents with small children often find themselves embarrassed because the conduct of their children draws attention. As we should not try to call attention to ourselves, neither should we pay undue attention to others, even when they or their children behave in a distracting manner. If you are going to sit in judgment on the behavior of your brothers and sisters at Mass, at least try not to show it by your outward movements and actions!

There are, however, some actions that should definitely be avoided. Cell-phones should be silenced. Further, as a general rule, photos should not be taken during Mass. Normally bathroom needs should be taken care of before Mass. Don’t let your teenagers use the bathrooms as an excuse to leave the nave of the church during Mass. Nor should you let your teenagers congregate in the vestibule during Mass. Try to arrive on time and do not leave early.

Likewise we should not be carrying on conversations during Mass. The time before and after Mass should be times in which a prayerful silence is maintained within the nave of the church. Prolonged conversation should be moved into the vestibule or outside.

When you receive communion, standing or kneeling, on the tongue or in the hand, apart from the necessary inward devotion, always try to receive communion with outward care, attention, and reverence. Make sure you consume the host in the presence of the minister. If you are receiving on the tongue, open your mouth and extend the tongue so the minister has a place to put the host.

When we are careless about the rules of reverence, attention, and devotion, we make an unnecessary display of ourselves, show a lack of respect for others, and a lack of reverence for the temple of the Lord.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.

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