We Gather Together: Dealing with Mass Behavior that is Distracting and Disturbing


One of our altar servers is shorter than most his age. It makes him self-conscious. Another altar server, a girl, is tall for her age. People tend to think she’s much older. I feel for these kids because of the issue of “assumptions” (which we think of as judgments.) People make assumptions based on appearances (which those kids can’t do anything about) and that can make life difficult. For a tall girl, it means she’ll be expected to know more, and act more mature, than would be true if she looked like her peers.

This issue of “don’t judge a book by its cover” is really about assumptions versus charity but it also reminds us of Jesus’ exhortation not to “judge.” Yet, there are times when we are called to make a judgment about right and wrong just as Jesus did when he corrected Peter. He said, “Get behind me Satan!”

I started thinking about this when I read an online discussion among Catholics about proper behavior at Mass.

There have been an amazingly large number of people who have responded to this topic about all the things at Mass that are distracting. Several posters seem to say, “Don’t judge others. Stick to your own prayers.” And as far as crying babies, squirmy children and flip-flop-wearing adults, I think that’s true. Babies cry and kids squirm. And Jesus loved the children!

We all, on occasion, throw on whatever foot covering is closest to the door! These things may be distracting for other people. But we should be charitable in the face of such distractions.

I remember being a mom with a squirmier. You feel so embarrassed that your child is running his little car along the pew making “Vroom, Vroom” sounds. You call him back to attention. You take the toy away. He cries. He says something that is too loud. You look to see how many people are “judging” you for this noisy child.

When the lady behind me pats my shoulder and smiles, I felt less tense. Such a gesture makes it easier for Mom, which makes it easier for the child, which makes it easier for everyone! Charity is important.

Yet, there are other times when the issues seem to call for a response that could be construed as judgment. When women are wearing low-cut, seductive outfits, they make it hard for men. When people seem blatantly disrespectful they dishonor the Lord’s house.

Recently, I sat behind a group of people who talked and texted throughout Mass. They were visitors. Yet, they were acting in a disrespectful manner at the front of Church. It was difficult to ignore but I didn’t know how to respond. The man next to me did. He leaned over to one person in the group and said, “At a Catholic Mass, we put cellphones away and keep quiet out of respect for God’s house.”

And then he did something that was just as important. He was a role model for proper behavior! He didn’t look at them again. Instead, he sang, knelt, prayed and attended to the Liturgy.

For my part, I felt that his comment was enough to let them know what was appropriate. But they acted like non-believers since they sat down during the Creed and didn’t respond to any prayers. I decided to pray and offer the Mass for them …and practice evangelization. So I reached out to shake the young woman’s hand during the Sign of Peace even though they were all sitting and visiting with each other at that moment. Then at the end of Mass, I offered to help the older lady as she walked out and said, “Thank you for coming.”

In the online comments, it seems as if the biggest concern is not to judge. But judgment is important. How we communicate that judgment, or what we do about it, is also important. First, it is necessary to reflect and say to ourselves, “Dressing seductively leads to impure thoughts. Talking and ignoring prayers is disrespectful and disruptive. Leaving right after communion does not show an appreciation for the true gift of the Eucharist. And dropping the Eucharist into a shirt pocket, or leaving it on the seat, is sacrilegious.”

Noting what is inappropriate or sinful is important for us—it reminds us what we don’t want to do. And it’s important to point out to our children—“respect is Mass is of utmost importance, and is that respectful?” Such discussions help them discern between right and wrong.

The second, and separate issue, is how to respond? Praying for those who seem to act inappropriately is one step. Whispering a reminder, such as in the example here, is appropriate. Asking for a reminder to be put in the bulletin, about proper respect for God’s house, is another action step.

But I have the feeling that one of the most powerful actions is to be a role model. When we focus on our prayers, when we are caught up in our love for Jesus in this most Blessed Sacrament, and we offer song prayers and join in communal prayers—that is a form of witness helps others. It calls them to something better.

The goal is that we are to become One Body, in the One Lord. So we must help each other be our best selves as we gather together.

Copyright 2012 Judith Costello


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  1. As a mother of three very young children,I am always worried that people are judging me at Mass (even if it isn’t reality). Sometimes, I am my own worst distraction. How can I be praying, when I have others’ judgement on my mind. I often have to take the kids to Mass by myself because my husband is a dairy farmer and often farm emergencies keep him from coming with us. It can become very stressful. I try to use the cry room only in extreme situations. I believe that children will not learn proper Mass behavior if they are not participating fully in the Mass.
    Charity can go a long way and I know I appreciate it. I try to give charity as well. Praying that kids behave also helps 🙂

    • Judith Costello on

      Hi Emily, I know exactly how you feel. Our squirming kids might distract others, but they really keep Mom from feeling free to close her eyes and pray! Moms can’t help but worry that a bit of unruly kid behavior will lead to lots of judgement by everyone else. Moms need to feel the charity of others. One thing I did when my daughter couldn’t sit still was to give her little angels to give to others. She had these angel cards in a special pouch. While I prayed at the beginning of Mass, I told her to hand out the cards to all the people around us. Then she passed out more during the Kiss of Peace. The older ladies who often sat behind us were thrilled! It won them over so they felt more kindly to my daughter’s squirming during other parts of the Mass!! I agree with you that the best way for our kids to understand the Mass is for them to be there at Mass!

  2. As a mother of four young kids, I have found that keeping my kids well-dressed will excuse a lot of bad behavior. My boys (ages 3 and 7) wear blazers and ties and my girls wear dresses. We are the loudest (and largest) family at church. But amazingly everyone keeps telling us after mass what a sweet family we are… I give the clothes the credit! Noisy kids in dirty playclothes just aren’t as cute as noisy kids in dress clothes.

  3. Great article. I don’t know what to say when people are talking throughout Mass. But I think I will follow that man’s lead that you mentioned here.
    As for children, when my kids were growing up, we would sit in the front row. They thought Father was watching them! Plus, they could see everything that was going on. It helped keep them quiet. Not perfect, but who is?

  4. I am a mother of three, one of whom has autism and finds mass a very difficult experience. We struggle through mass every week ( no cry room in any church near us) to attend church as a family. Most of our difficulties however are not because of my son’s autism but because of the assumptions and judgements others make. I only wish more people would heed the messages in your article so we could see some friendly faces for once.

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