Sunday, June 3, 2007

The Other People at Church

Being an archaeologist has meant sudden moves from one place to another like the one I recently underwent. In the past, getting set up in a new location included walking into a church. After the service, plenty of people would still be hanging around. I could tell an usher I was new, and then I would instantly be given a tour, introduced to the pastor, and given information on Bible studies and other activities. Church has always meant for me an instant social network.

I began the process of converting to Catholicism at exactly the same time I moved to Wyoming for an archaeological job. I went to an early morning Mass expecting a situation more-or-less like what I had known before, but found instead that I was the only person still in the room when the last hymn was over. I would have yelled, "Are you all so busy you've got somewhere important to be at 9:30 on Sunday morning?" but nobody would have heard me.

Adding to my troubles, of course, was the coffee-and-donut withdrawal. Baptists get cranky if they don't have coffee and a donut after a morning church service. I knew Catholics were into asceticism, but I never knew it was that harsh.

That summer of my move was a difficult time. Most of the week, I was in the field where I simply couldn't meet people. Church activities had stopped for the summer. RCIA classes didn't start until Fall. I couldn't take communion. I had a heck of a time chatting up anyone after Mass.

I don't blame anyone for all that; conversion is always a lonely and difficult time. Even converts who brought whole families with them into the Church speak of it as lonely and difficult. I used to roll my eyes at those conversion stories until I read the Hahns' Rome Sweet Home, which taught me that converting while married isn't all peaches and cream.

On moving to Utah, I found a beautiful Catholic church up the street. This morning after Mass, an usher grabbed me and learned I was new. He introduced me to the priest (not knowing I'd already met him), tried to give me a welcome packet they were out of, told me about the building and the renovated windows, and invited me to a post-Mass breakfast in the basement (I had coffee but refrained from the donuts). I felt like I was in a Baptist church again.

I bring this up because I have heard from some traditionalists who seem to say, unless I misunderstand them, that it's appropriate, even best, to ignore other people at Mass and act like the entire experience is a one-on-one interaction with Christ. They have reasons for this, of course; the Mass is an intensely personal encounter, but it is also a community event. For the one who is new or not even yet a full member, that sense of community is especially important. Obviously the traditionalists are correct that people shouldn't be chatting each other up during the Mass; that would disrupt any liturgy, Catholic or Protestant. But greeting people before or afterwards and getting to know new people are entirely appropriate.
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