Bishop Fred Henry

June 10, 2013

When I was seminarian, one of our compulsory courses was our half-hour Saturday night etiquette class. After a full week of facing the rigours of philosophical or theological study and reflection, this was a necessary, rather light subject but a hard discipline.

Msgr. Forrestal, the wise old spiritual director of the seminary, in his attempts to engage us, used to push off of certain texts that he had selected from a little book, Courtesy for Clerics, written in 1947 by Hermannus.

A sample of its approach and content can be gleaned from quotes such as: "Out of doors – If you wear a hat and pass any woman you know, you should raise your hat – lift it off your head, not merely touch it. If you have only met the lady once or twice, and your acquaintance is very slight, do not raise your hat nor greet her in any way until she gives you a sign of recognition. The privilege of choosing those with whom she wishes to be acquainted rests with the lady.

Catholic blogger Dorothy Pilarski gives parents advice on training their children to be reverent and behave properly in Church.

Catholic blogger Dorothy Pilarski gives parents advice on training their children to be reverent and behave properly in Church.

"This does not apply so much to woman of the uneducated class. These will probably wait for the priest to greet them. Somewhat pathetically, they will not expect courtesy from the priest, not even for him to raise his hat. They associate courtesy – and so do many who might know better – with money.

"That a priest shall reverence them because of their womanhood, even though they are poor, would surprise them. It rests with you to decide whether you will show courtesy to your poor parishioners or only to upper class people."

Using humour certainly helped monsignor to keep us awake and attentive as he tried to make his points and introduce us into the world of culture. He shared many practical do's and don'ts with us.

What was most important, however, wasn't so much the particulars but the underlying spirit of monsignor's teaching. Everything was grounded in reverence considered to be the foundation and the spire of good manners. Reverence towards Almighty God. Reverence to all God's creatures. Reverence towards one's own soul, and body that is its temple.

There can be no reverence for man unless there is reverence for God. That is why courtesy is dying out.

A few years ago, Maclean's Magazine, ran an issue entitled, The Rude Age, and observed: "It seems everywhere you turn these days, you encounter some snapping clerk, unapologetic buttinski in a bank queue or party guests who flunked out of knife-and-fork school.

"More than one friend has spoken to me in recent weeks of spats witnessed between customers in grocery checkouts ('The sign says eight items or less!'), while front line office workers are reporting increasing levels of surliness among both clients and colleagues.

"Police have documented the rise of road rage across the country, and television, I hardly need mention, has developed an outright fetish for in-your-faceness . . .".

Maclean's didn't deal with worship in churches but I sometimes wonder if we aren't losing some of that reverence for God and for one another. How should we behave at Mass? We come together to celebrate the Eucharist, the partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ. Reverence is called for.

Are we taking a far too casual attitude toward this holy celebration?


Dorothy Pilarski, a Catholic blogger, has offered a number of points worth pondering. Here is an abbreviated list (with a few of my own added comments):

  • Remember you have entered into the house of God for the purpose of prayer, adoration, reflection or to celebrate a sacrament. Now is not the time to talk to your friends. (Gathering areas or vestibules are good places for this.) But in church talk to God (pray and prepare to celebrate the Eucharist). Please do not bring in any cups of coffee. (I would add to this one not even "Tim's or Starbucks.")
  • Turn off cellphones. Do not text messages or check your emails or Facebook account from the pews or the back of the church. Leave your social media devices in the car. It's time to focus on God. It's distracting for others who are trying to pray.
  • Do not chew gum during Mass or put it in your side cheek, to chew on it later. Spit it out before entering into a church. (If you don't and present yourself for Communion, this at least borders on the sacrilegious.)
  • Dress with dignity for Mass. It seems that many women, many girls in this day and age have a need to always have a "sexy" (or hot) look. Mass is not a cocktail party. Mass is not a hockey arena. Come dressed with decorum, an aura of dignity.
  • I don't think that we need a rigid dress code but holes in or torn jeans are not acceptable at a golf club, why at church? The same would apply to men's muscle shirts – they just don't cut it.
  • However, whenever addressing the issue of attire, one must always add a cautionary note – While we do owe our Lord our best, the Mass isn't a fashion show, and we've lost the Christian message entirely if we are "like whitened sepulchres, which outwardly appear to others beautiful but within are full of dead men's bones and of all filthiness" – while sitting in judgment on other people without knowing their situation.
  • Parents have a duty to give their children ongoing, on-the-job training, all the time. That includes the obligation to train their children in the appropriate times to kneel, sit, stand and face the altar. If children are engaged in playing with toys, eating and drinking, they are surely not being taught about the fact that Jesus is really up there on the altar, nor the significance of prayer, self-control and the importance of participating in the Mass.
  • If you are late for Mass, please do not walk down the aisles looking for a seat until it's appropriate. You are disrupting others. The Toronto Symphony (and the Jack Singer Concert Hall) do not allow late-comers to waltz in at "whatever" time. Church ushers should be trained to deal with this.
  • Please do not leave Mass before it ends (unless you are illegally parked, in which case it is probably too late anyway and, if you are ticketed, you will lose your Eucharistic attitude much too quickly). You will also be missing the supernatural graces of the final blessing (and the authoritative mandate to "Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord"). Besides, it's a bad example for your kids.

The key is: Reverence.

Letter to the Editor - 07/01/13