Can the perfect Mass be an idol?

Can the perfect Mass be an idol?

A friend shared this post about bringing kids to Mass on Facebook. I don’t really want to renew that hoary old debate, though I did get into it in the comments on her post. What I really want to explore is something kind of tangential that came up in that discussion.

I’m not here to throw stones or to remove splinters from other people’s eyes. Mainly I’m looking at the plank in my own eye here and wondering how it got there and what to do about it. And I’m hoping that by describing it I might help some other people with their motes.

Anyway, all the disclaimers out of the way, what I wont to consider is this: Many people (and I include myself in this) have this ideal of a contemplative, solemn Mass that we cling to, even when our experience seldom lives up to the ideal. More and more I’m coming to believe that this ideal Mass is really an idol, a false god that can even get in the way of our relationship with God. I’m jumping off of Elizabeth Scalia’s excellent book, Strange Gods, which explores at length the question of how our ideals can become idols, things that stand in between us and God.) I think you can see how it gets in the way most clearly when you look at how fiercely people (and again I include myself) cling to it, even when doing so stirs up feelings of enmity between oneself and one’s neighbors.

This insight has become clearer to me as I think about our call to evangelization and the task of the new evangelization which means reaching out to our fellow baptized Catholics who for whatever reason have not yet heard the Good News proclaimed in a way that they have left all to follow Christ as disciples. During this discussion it suddenly occurred to me that this ideal of the perfectly solemn, uninterrupted Mass gets in the way of evangelization because it leads us to treat other people as disturbances and distractions and to lose sight of the fact that their inability to behave the way we think they should is really a signal to us– or at least it should be– of their need. Instead of shunning them, we should be welcoming them. If they don’t know Christ, and their gossiping during Mass suggests they don’t, then shouldn’t our job be to be the face of Christ to them?

If they can’t discern Christ in the Eucharist then all the more they need to discern him in the faces of the people around them. If they are getting the stinkeye, even if they do deserve it, why would they come back? Why would they seek Christ?

First the New Evanglization and the great commission: Go out and make disciples of all men.

This new evanglization isn’t really new, just a new awareness that we have failed to live up to the great commission and most of all an awareness that the mission territory isn’t “out there,” that often the people most in need of evangelization are sitting in the pews every Sunday.

I think there is definitely a place for, a need for contemplative silence in the Christian life, but I’m not convinced that Sunday Mass– or even daily Mass– at your local parish is really ideal for that kind of prayer. If it isn’t the squawking baby it’s the little old lady with the noisy oxygen tank or her deaf husband. Or the autistic guy with his noise reducing headphones who sometimes barks and yips a bit. Or someone’s aunt and cousins who haven’t ever been to a Catholic Mass before, or at least that’s what you’d think form their behavior. Or the homeless guy in the back. Or… or… or. Maybe part of the problem is that we are too focused on ourselves and making an idol out of the “perfect Mass” convinced that unless we achieve that perfect silence of contemplation we haven’t “got anything out of it.” If you want to spend time alone in quiet with Christ, you can visit a monastery, go to Adoration, close the door to your room, walk in the woods. But don’t expect to get it during Mass because if you spend your Mass chasing that contemplative moment and giving every person who distracts you the stinkeye, you’re doing it wrong.

And now on to a particular thread of the conversation that got me thinking:

Someone complains: “Most parents seem to do their best to pretend nothing is happening though and that little Bobby will just be quiet in a few minutes.”

That interpretation doesn’t seem at all inclined to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. In my experience as a parent of five, many fussy babies do indeed calm down after a minute or two.

Sure, some parents might in fact be clueless and rude (and then again the question really is how can we reach out to them in love in a way that makes them feel welcome), but most parents do have the experience to know that kids make noise but they will indeed calm down. Me, I have scale of reaction depending on the degree of fussiness. No, I don’t take out a fussy baby at the first hint of noise, I try to calm him first. But a screaming baby gets taken out right away. And yes, I’ve been known to wait a few minutes to see if the fussy baby can be distracted or will calm down and often they do. Sometimes a little bump causes a cry that will settle down long before you even get to the back of the church. An experienced parent knows their kids and will give them a chance to calm themselves. But if it’s a scream or a tantrum, then out they go immediately. But parents should not have to be permanently exiled to a cry room, or cry rooms not really existing in my part of the country, to the Church entrance.

But back to those rude and clueless parents…. I know Bobby’s mother. She is just coming back to the Church after having drifted away in college. Her faith is tenuous at best. Her husband is an atheist but she convinced him to come to Mass with her for the first time today. And because the little old lady in front of them glared at her and another guy said something rude about Bobby’s fussing (Bobby is cutting his first tooth and didn’t sleep well last night, but she was really hoping he’d make it to communion) because of the cold reception, she’s taking the hint and next Sunday she’s going to try the Baptist church down the street. Or maybe she’ll just take her husband’s advice and sleep in, after all she can try again later when Bobby is older. Maybe she won’t come back for another ten years. Maybe she’ll never come back at all.
I know Bobby’s mother. Her husband is on deployment in Iraq and she’s alone with the three kids. One of them is on the autisim spectrum and acts out terribly, but he looks too old to be acting that way. Unfortunately autism isn’t detectable just by looking and so people at Church just think she’s a bad mother who can’t be bothered to control her kid. But she keeps going to Mass by herself with the baby and the toddler and the autistic son because God is the only thing getting her through this deployment.

Perhaps all of us should go to Mass with the intention of finding the most annoying person there and making them feel welcome. Recently I read an article (can’t find the link now) about how most people, even many Catholics, don’t know that God loves them unconditionally. How can we make the parents of small children feel that they are loved unconditionally when they are only welcome to come in if their kids are perfect angels?


On Facebook a friend asks a good question, I thought I’d include that and my answer because it is some of what I meant to include here but my thoughts got scattered and I forgot.

I do sometimes find it hard to understand how to balance/reconcile/? the reverence we owe God with the love of neighbor — how much are we supposed to tolerate those who seem to know not what they do (when it’s beyond a mere personal annoyance but really objectively inappropriate) and are also unlikely to accept attempted fraternal correction? I guess I need to make sure I’m not “judging” people who say they are offended not on their own behalf but on behalf of the holiness of God’s house, the Mass, etc. You know? It’s not something that was drilled into me as a kid in ’80s and ’90s Catholic school, that’s for sure, the reverence for God’s majesty, but some people must have that more deeply-rooted than I do, and per se, I think that’s a good thing for those people, even if it might be the kind of virtue that’s unfortunately easy to allow to trump the higher virtue of charity. Does that make any sense?

For me the balance is this: I do my best to be as reverent as I can and to teach my children reverence. We dress up for Mass, we behave appropriately– or as much as we can for our ages. We love God, we worship him to the best of our meager ability. But we also try our hardest not to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. If I’m worried about what other people are doing, if they distract me, I try to make that an opportunity to pray for them. But I think fraternal correction is most properly offered in the context of a relationship. If you really want to help people who don’t know what to do, isn’t the best way to first get to know them, earn their trust? You have to first establish the fraternal before you can offer correction. If there is any question at all in your mind about whether you can offer fraternal correction without someone being offended, the answer is no, you can’t because you don’t have the relationship to do so.

Mind you, this is the ideal I strive for. The part that I forgot to include in the blog post was a list of all the instances in which I’ve failed to live up to this and the ways in which I hope the merciful Father will not let me have been a stumbling block on other people’s journey to Him. And that to me is sort of key: we’re all on a journey and our goal should be to help each other to get to know Christ.

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  • I wrote a similar post back on Mothers Day; the subject of children in Mass never goes out of style.
    But I love your idea of the ideal Mass as an idol. Patiently enduring small disruptions can add to the holiness of Mass if we let it.
    We can change our attitudes and behaviors towards other families, work on our own children’s behaviors and let go of the idea of what Mass absolutely must be. (There is no perfection this side of heaven after all.) Those things will make Mass better, not judging, assuming or offering unsolicited advice. How many times I wish someone would’ve given me the benefit of the doubt on a rough Sunday.

  • This reminds me of one of Tolkien’s letters to his son Christopher, from the volume of letters edited by Humphrey Carpenter. I don’t have a quote – I’d have to reread the book to find the exact letter – but as I recollect it, Tolkien was advising his son for reasons I cannot now recall, to, occasionally I think, attend Mass in the most irritating conditions possible (poor homilist, irritating congregation, etc.)

    …I’m going to have to go back and get that book from the library again, now.

    However, the idol of the perfect Mass is very real. People get as angry at mothers nursing infants, as they do at parents that bring Happy Meals into the pews for their kids. (Yes, the Happy Meal problem really existed, enough so to get a bulletin mention, at Saint Helena’s in Pearland.)

    It’s a very difficult balancing act. Some parents bring /anything/ they think will keep their child quiet through Mass, without considering what they’re teaching or what significant distraction they might be causing, not for the adults, but for the other small children! Portable video games, art supplies, tupperwares of fruit… I’ll confess, I’m not even very fond of Cheerios, because once David saw a kid eating Cheerios, he wanted some too. His behavior would spiral downhill because another child had something he wanted, even though he could be perfectly good without a snack and probably would have been had he not seen the Cheerios.

    Another thing that bothers me is how… controlling it seems to bring things to occupy children so the parents don’t have distractions during Mass. Like children are little machines, input Cheerios/toys/videogames, output quiet behavior. The idea of doing this with David and Rafe makes me feel all itchy and guilty.

    • I’ve blogged that excerpt from Tolkien’s letters before (though I’m pretty sure I lifted it from someone’s blog. I haven’t read the book.):

      “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament… There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death. By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste -or foretaste- of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.

      The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always Itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals.

      Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children – from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn – open necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand – after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.”

      We decided early on that we don’t want to create a habit of eating during Mass or playing during Mass that they are going to have to unlearn later. That just seems to me like setting yourself up for parenting failure down the road.

      We think it’s perfectly reasonable to expect a small child– not a nursing infant, but a toddler or a preschooler– to wait an hour to eat so we feed them breakfast right before we leave and then don’t give them food at Mass. But I do make exceptions. We have occasionally had reason to go to Mass right at their expected meal time. Examples I can remember have been a funeral, a cousin’s first communion, a baptism. I do not think it reasonable to expect a toddler to wait to eat when his little belly is saying it is lunch time. So out come the Cheerios and I’m sorry to other moms if it makes their job harder.

      I think most children– at least most of ours– can be entertained with what I think of as Mass-appropriate distractions: rosaries, holy cards, board books or picture about the Mass or prayers or saints or Jesus. These are items that are not unreasonable for even adults to use as aids to contemplation and so I try to make them my first line of defense for the child who can’t be redirected during Mass. However, I have occasionally found it expedient not to fight the toddler when he’s got a favorite toy clutched in his fist. I try to take toys from them in the car with the explanation that we don’t bring toys to Mass, but if it’s been a particularly hard day sometimes you have to pick your battles, you know?

      I agree it seems to me very counter-productive to occupy children with food and toys. When are they going to learn how to sit quietly, when are you going to teach them about the Eucharist? I try to redirect my children to what’s happening at the altar first and only when that fails to distract them with other things. But I try very hard to remember that those are my standards and that other parents have their own struggles that I just don’t know about. I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t know what they are dealing with.

      However, I do know that other people in our parish pay attention to my kids. We sit in the front pew so the kids can see what is going on. That also happens to make us very visible. I think people maybe notice that our kids behave pretty well and do so without toys. I’ve even noticed some families who used to bring food and comic books and such don’t do so any more. Is it that they see by our example that it is possible? Maybe.

  • +JMJ+

    I wonder how much of this is due to people in the pews being strangers to each other. I don’t think we’d be so mean about a lot of things if we really understood what everyone else had to get through just to be able to hear Mass in relative peace.

    • E, That’s a really good point. When you know the struggles someone is having it’s much, much easier to be sympathetic. When they are a stranger, it’s easier to see them as just an intrusion. Which is again why I think the best tactic is perhaps to see an annoyance as a prompt to make a friend. Mind you, that’s the part I find particularly difficult. Oy, social anxiety! I am so inept at small talk, things often fizzle on me.

      • +JMJ+

        After reading William Makepeace Thackery’s comment that it is a great compliment to a woman when she is hated by other women, I have tried to counter any feelings of annoyance toward women with sincere attempts to befriend them. Being an introvert, however, I’ve found that all my success has been “internal”: that is, I no longer resent or feel irritated by them . . . but we don’t necessarily end up as friends.

  • I’m in agreement – the perfect Mass, and the perfect Church, can be idols. Good points. And I recognize that tendency in myself – I used to seek out the “faithful Catholic” group each time we moved, but after an awkward experience with a home school group that didn’t want to allow a family with a mixed faith marriage into their group, I became more guarded. I agree with Enbrethiliel also – how much more we sympathize with people we know. I was surprised to see a daily Mass regular at the Wednesday night supper our church puts on for the less fortunate – he was there to eat, not to volunteer. And after talking to him, I think he’s probably autistic or somehow has an untypical perspective of reality. But he leads the singing and the Angelus at daily Mass with fervor, and everyone follows along.

    With a new baby coming along, I suppose I’m going to be back in the foyer for part of Mass again, but I have a feeling some of my older kids will offer to make the “sacrifice” of carrying the baby/toddler out, especially if there’s a long homily. We went through phases of allowing/not allowing food/toys at Mass, and since all the kids now can sit through Mass attentively without a snack or a book, it doesn’t seem to have mattered whether they had a diversion as a toddler or not. Each kid had different needs.

  • Great post, Melanie. I often wonder where the idea of the perfectly silent parish Mass comes from — do we really think all generations before us have been perfectly silent and reverent? My husband once read me a passage from some book on the liturgy — he thinks Jungmann’s Roman Rite, though wouldn’t swear to it– which describes parishioners in the Middle Ages calling out to priests when they couldn’t see the Eucharist at the elevation, “Higher, Fr. John! Higher!” I don’t think that was irreverent; there seems to have been a more robust sense of what reverence entails at one time (and think about what that one example implies about pastor-parishioner relations, too). I blame Irish Jansenism, which infects American Catholic practice greatly still today, though I am not really qualified to level such an assertion!

  • Great, Great article!

    (appropriate for us Lutherans as well)

    Apparently it is something on Pope Francis’s heart as well – as he intereacted with the little boy the other day. We too often forget that the mass is God’s gift and His giving to us, through the word, through the Eucharist…. it is the gifts of God for the people of God…. and like the sabbath – the mass is for God’s people.

    Thanks again for stating this so well!

  • […] I really appreciated Melanie Bettinelli’s recent post on treating the perfect Mass as an idol. It’s tempting to argue that we need to have a perfect spiritual experience every Sunday in order to go about our work throughout the week. However, nowhere in the Bible does it say you have to store up good spiritual experiences in order to be an apostle. Instead it says: […]

  • I had Haley’s article in mind tonight as mass–and another of hers about “praying with your feet”–after my 10 month old was just absolutely out of sorts because of the time change. Maybe I’m a bad mother for it not occurring to me and not factoring his lack of sleep into an evening mass, but oh boy were we in and out of the building with craziness,wailing and all sorts of loud disruptive behavior. Happily, I received 0 stinkeyes. Though I could have been so preoccupied I missed one. 😉

    I really enjoyed your take on it. I completely agree! Not only should we give people the benefit of the doubt but it should be a priority to lovingly welcome our brothers and sisters in Christ around us in mass even when we’re really annoyed. We’re human, and they’re human.

    Though the commentary on the original article made my skin crawl. Oy.

    I hope some of those posters there (like the ones who downvoted whoever cited the scripture of letting the little children come to me–double Oy. and Vey) can read this and reflect a bit. I will pray for the Wisdom of God for myself and anyone else who needs a little push sometimes to be charitable! 🙂

    God bless!

  • This couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been struggling with this recently and I believe charity is the answer. God will take care of the rest. We truly don’t know many other Mass goers reasons for what they do and charity should come first. I am a reformed once Pharisee in this area and God is helping me to put away this idol of the Perfect mass or what I pertain to be the perfect moment in some contemplative way.
    Thanks again.

  • There’s some part in the Screwtape Letters where Screwtape tells his nephew to bother the man he’s trying to snare with all sorts of thoughts about his fellow parishioners during the liturgy. Thoughts about their “real lives” outside of church and their doltishness, etc. So, perhaps when we’re feeling overwhelmed with annoyance, a prayer to St. Michael wouldn’t hurt.

  • Thank you. That was fantastic. No time to read the comments yet but I LOVE the line at the end: “You have to first establish the fraternal before you can offer correction.” Bullseye.