All of us “practicing” Catholics witness the appearance of visitors at Christmas Mass.
Some are visiting family and friends. Some are semi-practicing Catholics who get into the Christmas spirit and decide to see what is happening. Perhaps some are people who just came in to escape snow and ice.
We regulars have varied reactions to these strangers.
At one extreme, what a joyful thing that they at least ventured into the church and we might have the opportunity to make a positive impression so they come back.
At the other extreme, many (perhaps most) don’t understand that they are in God’s house. They may be noisy, disrespectful and resist efforts by us regulars to persuade them to be quiet in the sanctuary. And while we want to make them welcome, we also want to experience the spiritual significance of Christmas without long-lost cousins loudly holding a reunion in the pew behind us.
There is a solution that may sound a bit radical, but it is in an approach that has been tried in other forums with grand results.
For many years, I took a commuter train back and forth from my suburban home to the city. Some riders chatted on the trip. Others, read, worked on their laptops, talked on the phone, worked puzzles or slept. The ride could get a bit noisy, which annoyed the readers, workers and sleepers.
The railroad implemented a solution: quiet cars. Each train now has at least one quiet car where you don’t talk, use the phone or sing along with your headphones. This satisfies the needs of noisy and quiet riders alike.
Catholic parishes could do something similar, especially at Christmas when there are many Masses, something offered simultaneously (one in Church, one in the school gym). There would be two options for people coming to Mass:
Option A: Mass in the school gym. Music by the contemporary choir. Welcoming introduction by a young woman wearing tights and a low-cut blouse. Priest processes in and asks everyone to turn to the person on either side, introduce themselves and shake hands. Homily ignores the readings and focuses on the forgiveness and inclusion. Everyone holds hands during the singing of the Lord’s Prayer. Everyone hugs a stranger during the sign of peace. Communion offered to anyone who feels the forgiveness of God in their heart. And before the final blessing, a reminder that there will be a wine and cheese reception following Mass, with cartoons for the kids.
Option B: Mass in the Church. People who have been to Mass in the past week and confession in the past month enter in silence as the traditional choir sings classical Christmas works. The choir accompanies the service with Mass parts sung in Latin and carols from the ancient dusty hymnals saved from the bonfire from the Legion of Mary. Everyone kneels and prays before the start of the service, which is conducted with great reverence and joy. The homily is about the birth of Christ and its significance to our world. People join the priest in the Lord’s Prayer and give a warm handshake and/or nod to others during the sign of peace. The congregation stays for all five verses of the recessional hymn, then kneels for prayers and leaves in quiet joy to meet and greet outside the sanctuary.
Of course, I have little expectation anyone will actually take my up on this brilliant proposal. Thus, Christmas Masses will continue to try to accommodate people who don’t have a clue about how to behave in church – and faithful folk trying to tolerate their profane conduct.
There was a time (many years ago) when I would have opted for Option A above. Today, I’m pure Option B. I pray for a world where the two options meet in respectful harmony.