When entering the church to attend Mass, you like to leave the world and all of its cruelties outside. The moment you settle yourself in your pew and kneel before our heavenly Father, you want to free your mind from daily frustrations and allow the loving embrace of God's peace to calm your heart and strengthen your soul. I've noticed though that in the past several years, the climate of the church prior to and during Mass has become less of a sanctuary for the soul and more of a social gathering venue. Although I always arrive at Mass early to pray, my ability to focus is often hindered by fragments of conversations from varying directions. Gaggles of chit-chatters huddle in little herds, and all the latest news about their chuldren and grandchildren reaches my ears. Several other groups meet in similar fashion, each adding the noise of their discussions to the growing din. All shreds of silence are drowned out until the rising cacophony becomes akin to what one might find in the setting of a chaotic fast-food restaurant.
Besides the lack of respect that there has been for observing holy silence over the years, the lack of addressing inappropriate behaviors in children during Mass has also been increasing problem. I recall an incident years ago when a child of about 6 years of age was causing a disturbance in the pew in front of me. While it's understandable it would be normal for a small child to have difficulty in sitting still, this particular youngster was crawling under the pew and bothering those who were seated behind him. Before I realized what he was doing, I was startled when his face appeared at my feet from beneath the pew, staring straight up at me. He had slid himself on his back from under the seat as though he were a mechanic rolling out from beneath a car on a mechanic's dolly. He smiled playfully and said, “Hello!” He kept repeating this behavior, and the parents did nothing to stop it. Meanwhile, each time I stood up during Mass, I had to watch my feet to avoid stepping on him or bumping him. I tried to put the kneeler down to thwart his efforts at crawling through, but that only made the kneeler a toy to push up and down for him. I probably should have said something to the parents, maybe tapped them on the shoulder and asked them to please not have their child crawl under the seat. However, I didn't think that it would do any good because they were clearly aware of what he was doing and chose to ignore it.
On another occasion at Mass, a family who was several pews in front of me had a tote bag in the pew with them. During the homily, a young boy (he appeared to be at least 8 years old) was given an apple from the tote bag by a woman beside him. I assumed this woman was his mother, and she seemed completely unabashed when the child bit into the apple and proceeded to eat it. The youngster chomped away while watching the priest give the homily, and the child behaved as though he were a spectator at a ball game rather than a worshiper at Mass. The words of the homily were mixed with the sporadic sounds of crunch, crunch....crunch. By the start of Holy Communion, when people were rising and filing out of the pews to receive the Blessed Sacrament, I was appalled when I saw the child hand his mother the mostly-consumed apple and head up to receive Communion.
Just the other day, while attending Mass to celebrate the start of the Advent season, I sat in my usual spot near the back of the church, second to last pew. The same distinguished-looking elderly man who always sits behind me was there, and the usual people who tend to sit in the same places were all assembled as well. Before Mass there was the usual hubbub of surrounding conversations, but (thankfully) it wasn't as noisy as it typically is. Mass got under way, and by the time of the second reading, I suddenly felt a strong thrust against the back of my pew. It didn't came from directly behind me, but from somewhere behind and to the far right. The force was strong enough to shake the entire pew. My first thought was that someone, likely a child, had inadvertently bumped into the pew somehow, so I initially dismissed the incident. However, the thrust was repeated over and over, and of course I realized by then that the shaking of the pew was deliberate. A hasty glance over my shoulder revealed the source of the pew shaker – a girl who had to be at least 9 years old was apparently pressing her shoes on the back of the pew and pushing it again and again. She was too far down for me to say anything to her or to her family without causing a spectacle. I had never seen this particular family in church before. During the homily, the child continued pushing and pushing on the pew. I finally heard a loud whisper from a parent telling her to stop, but she didn't. The whole long pew proceeded to undulate, and those of us who were in it felt our bodies vibrating with every reoccurring thump...thump, thump... A lady who was seated far down at the opposite end from me got up and left her seat and went to the back of the church (obviously, she was disgusted by the whole thing). I might have followed suit, but the homily soon ended, and everyone stood to say the profession of faith. As I rose from the pew, my body still felt like it was rattling, and my head was a bit dizzy. I was angry about the child's behavior, angry that the parents hadn't done more to correct her, and angry at all the past incidents at Mass where I'd experienced or observed frustrations such as this most recent situation. Then I began to be angry with myself for being angry. I reprimanded myself for not being more patient with others. “After all,” I told myself, “Christ is patient with me during all of my short-comings, so I must be more patient with others.” I felt like a horrible person. I prayed for the child and prayed for the family to make up for my lack of patience and tolerance. Later though, while coming home from Mass, I reflected further and thought to myself about how our society has compelled us to be tolerant almost to a fault. We live in world now where crime is tolerated to the point where some places allow criminals to steal and loot. Immorality of all kinds is tolerated. Mediocrity in work, in dress, in manners, and in relationships is tolerated because it seems as if people have adopted the notion that it's easier just to give up rather than to expect anything better. What we need to remember though is that heaven is not a place of mediocrity, so we can't allow ourselves to be pulled into the quicksand of the world's second-rate attitude toward higher standards.
I probably shouldn't have reproached myself for being angry at the incident at Mass with the child who was pushing on the pew or with the other incidents that I've experienced. Such behavior should never be tolerated, and we should be angry when it occurs! People need to be taught to behave respectfully during Mass. Parents need to instill this respect in their children! We recall from scriptures that Christ Himself did not tolerate the money-changers in the temple, nor should we tolerate noise and disrespect in the place of the Blessed Sacrament. As Catholics, we are called to a higher standard. If we allow ourselves to tolerate and blend in with the world's mediocre mind-set, then we are in danger of becoming mediocre ourselves. Being Catholic has to mean something, and Christ calls us to be the light of world. The light doesn't tolerate the darkness, nor should we tolerate disrespect for Christ. Our light has to shine for others and lead the way to God.