Yesterday, Daniel and I had the privilege of attending Mass with a friend of mine who was getting to experience her first Mass. When I say “privilege,” I really mean it. When you take someone to Mass with you who is seeing it all with new eyes, it makes you look at everything the way you did when you first saw it (if you’re an adult convert like we are). You see with your first eyes the quiet prayers of the lay people kneeling before Mass, to the Cantor leading in the responsorial Psalm, and even on to the “peace be with you” from the multitude around you. You witness the Mass in that special way again that makes you think about how you can see God all around you in the Mass. You remember that it is beautiful and frightening and reverent and all at once you’re overwhelmed in Him.
In addition to all of those memories, you might remember experiencing some fear during your first Mass. Maybe even your second, third, and fourth Mass too, if you’re like me. Being in a whole new setting of worship when you’re used to things being done a certain way (whether you like that way or not) can be a little scary. For someone who worries about everything the way that I do, you might wish there was a pause button to the Mass so that you can ask all the questions that bubble up out of curiosity, respect, and being a little scared that you’re going to do the wrong thing or won’t understand the meaning of something really important.
It all got me thinking about all of the little aspects of Catholicism and Mass that I wanted to know at the start but was too embarrassed to ask about in some way or another. Those thoughts caused me to glance over at my friend at the start of Mass, and I could tell that she already had questions, was kind of nervous, and wanted to understand the deeper meanings. I leaned in and whispered that if she had any questions, I would be happy to answer them. I made sure to tell her that there were no stupid questions, and that if she was nervous about doing something right she could ask me for help, because it was not long ago that I was there too. We were all in a fortunate position yesterday, in that we were able to go to lunch and talk about all the questions that arose during Mass and we were able to dispel some of the fear of the unknown for my friend. I realize that a lot of people don’t have that kind of opportunity, and that’s why I want to post a few questions that we talked about coming from a first timer and some of the things I remember wondering as a first timer.
Why are there bowls of water when you walk in, and what are people doing touching it and then touching their faces?
The bowls of water (sometimes called “fonts”) are actually full of “Holy Water” which we use upon entering and leaving the Church. This water is used in a blessing for a few different reasons. It is not only a sign and reminder of our baptism (which freed us from the stain of original sin) but also a sign of repentance from our sin. Water is a great symbol of purification as it washes and cleanses. We also use it as protection from evil as it is blessed by a Priest. When we touch it to our face, we are actually making a cross from our forehead to our chest (commonly known as “the sign of the cross.”) and it is a prayer. We say, “In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit,” as we make the cross and we actually use that prayer very commonly in our everyday lives (such as before we eat, when we begin and end other prayers, and after we receive the Eucharist). There are so many aspects to this little prayer, but in an effort not to overwhelm, these are a few of the basics. This prayer helps to prepare us to receive God’s grace and blessings. It also helps us to remember the Crucifixion and our Lord’s passion, not to mention the reference to the Trinity. (If you have been baptized in a Christian Church and/or are in RCIA and the priest has told you that your baptism was valid, you can do this too!)
Why did you bow before you entered the pew, and why are people bowing as they approach the front?
Catholics believe that the body and blood we use for communion becomes the actual body and blood of our Lord, and so knowing that, we bow in reverence to the Divine Presence in the tabernacle (the dwelling place) in the front of the Church. When you study history, you see that it was common practice to bow in respect before royalty. This is just like that, in that we have Jesus in our Church with us. We want to be respectful and acknowledge Him as our Lord and King. When we kneel down oftentimes before entering a pew, it is called “Genuflecting” and it is done out of adoration. We make the sign of the cross as we do this. (You can do this too!)
What was the man in the robe called who talked and where does he fit into Church Hierarchy?
Unless you attended a Mass at a Cathedral or during a visit from the Bishop, that was most likely a priest. He is the one who performs the Mass. He is able to celebrate the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass, administer it to the lay people, hear confessions and grant absolution. He is the celebrant of Catholic weddings and the leader of his flock (or parish). A priest acts as pastor to a parish, which can be thought of as the local church. Several parishes and their priests are under a bishop, who is responsible for a diocese. Bishops also say Mass but are vastly outnumbered by the priests that serve under them, so you are more likely to attend mass performed by a parish priest. You may also see the priest assisted by a deacon. These are lay people who aid the priests in preaching the Gospel, saying the petitions, helping to give the Eucharist to the people and other tasks. However, they do not consecrate the Eucharist.
Do I have to shake his hand after?
Priests oftentimes wait outside the Church after Mass to greet the people. In my experience, they try to shake hands and greet as many as they can, and so if you happen to be in the line that they are in, they will try to shake your hand. This is not part of the Mass (since before, we heard the proclamation “The Mass is Ended”) and thus you should only act out of typical social conduct, not Mass etiquette. He’s a person who is saying hello. Don’t feel like you have to be Catholic to shake his hand. (But you can if you want!)
If I don’t say everything that everyone else is saying in Mass, will they be looking at me?
No. The simple answer is this. People attend Mass because they chose to attend Mass and worship our Lord. Not to see what their neighbor is and is not saying. (It’s the same sort of thing as when you find yourself in the line for Confession and you think everyone is judging you. “Wow, she must have a lot of sin. Wonder what she did. She’s so guilty she won’t even look up.” No. Everyone there is confessing their own sins, and we’re all in the same boat. No one is judging.) But anyway, no one is really paying attention to whether or not you’re following along and you don’t have to follow along to be able to attend Mass. (But you are welcome to if you’d like!)
Why are people looking expectantly at me in the middle of Mass and waiting for me to shake their hand?
This is the part of the Mass where everyone offers each other a sign of peace, the way Jesus offers us peace. It just means to offer the peace of Christ and to see Him in those around us. (I also like to think about it like this. Wherever I am in life, wherever my neighbor is in his/her life, it doesn’t matter. We are wishing them the peace of Christ and they are wishing us peace.) As brothers and sisters to each other, we are offering peace and communing together in unity as we acknowledge Christ in us. (You can definitely do this.)
These are a few of the topics of conversation we talked about, and I remember certainly having a lot more questions, but I am no theology expert and for the sake of a shorter post, I’ll wrap up with this. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. The Church herself encourages education and for everything we do, there is a reason. (That was one of the most helpful pieces of info my Priest during RCIA ever gave me.)