It was a busy Sunday just like any other, as my husband and I rushed our sleepy children out the door to go to Mass. There were just a couple of differences. First of all, our children weren’t the only sleepy ones in the family, because we were still working our way through jet lag. Secondly, rather than our usual 20-minute drive, we only had to go next door to get to Mass, because my husband had gotten us an apartment right next door to the Cathedral of St. Michael in the Bastide Saint-Louis of Carcassone, or the lively town attached to the medieval Cathar citadel. Of course, this means there was one more difference from our usual Sunday worship: the Mass would be in French.
Between our apartment and the Cathédrale Saint-Michele was a modestly sized but hauntingly beautiful public square placed there in modern times: a memorial to locals who had died in twentieth-century wars. At night, the square lights up from fixtures in glass tiles set in the walkways. By day, especially on Sundays, it provides a gathering place outside the cathedral walls. On the day of our visit, there was a large crowd there flocked around a young, fashionably dressed mother holding her baby, clad in a white lace christening gown and bonnet.
I could not help but notice a difference in body language and dress between the people gathering for the christening and those, like my family, going in solely for the Mass. The latter, whether français or otherwise, we were dressed with upper arms covered and skirts at least to just above the knee. Our heads were bowed, and our mouths were closed — for the most part (I may have whispered a few things in English to my husband, who speaks no French). The christening crowd still congregating in the memorial square were showing a little more skin and a lot more noise. I was neither shocked nor scandalized, frankly. How many times have we seen a similar scenario play out in our parish at the noon Mass before the 1 PM baptisms?
After kneeling on the wooden kneeler for some initial prayer, I sat back and gazed in wonder at the ceiling, stretching itself up to heaven and making me feel small and reverent. An older couple genuflected and took their seats in front of us, and I went back to gazing. Moments later, I saw the priest guiding some altar servers toward preparing for the liturgy, and as a lay Dominican, I was downright giddy to see that, since he’d not yet donned his chasuble, I saw he was wearing a Dominican habit. While all this was going on, the christening attendees entered the church, bringing their conversation with them. I felt myself frowning. Even if you don’t believe Jesus is in that tabernacle, how can you chit-chat in a church this old, this breathtaking? I bit my lip and thought about again about the boisterous families arriving for baptisms at our home parish. We are all the same, no matter where we live, I reminded myself, and I tried to get back to praying.
My thoughts were interrupted when Father approached the ambo and turned on the microphone. My French is not so good that I could quote him, but I understood, both from his words and the way he was looking squarely at the side of the church presently filled by the christening crowd, that he was telling them that this is a place where Jesus is, and that we show our love for Him by being quiet.
For all the times we’d encountered this same scenario at home, this was the first time I’d seen a priest call out grown adults for irreverence. I think my eyes were still bugging out from the shock when the woman in the couple in front of us turned around, locked eyes with me, and gave me a smug, disapproving nod, as if to say, “Good thing we’re not the ones being reprimanded.”
It was too late. I was already feeling the same judgmental relief seeping up out of the darker regions of my heart. It took a lot for me to look inward and admit, in the mirrored face of my elderly neighbor’s apparent judgment, We are all the same, no matter where we live.
And then my husband almost made me laugh by leaning over and whispering, “Did that priest just ‘shush’ them?”
The christening attendees quieted down, but only barely. My mind, however, still goes back to that Mass, reminding me that, as much as I may fight it, I am still prone to seeing my fellow Mass-goers in terms of “us” and “them.” They wear beach shorts, but I wear modest skirts — and yet no skirt can cover up my tendency to judge where it’s not my place to do so. They chat through the Eucharistic prayer, but I keep my head bowed — and yet, how often do I let my mind wander away from the miracle that is Jesus coming among us, offering Himself wholly to us as a gift to be received, even when—especially when we all fall so short in so many ways of being the children He deserves?
I know I am in no place to judge. I try instead to think back to the message Father offered to the people chit-chatting in the Cathédrale Saint-Michele. He did not offer judgment. He only offered truth — that this is a place where Jesus is, and we show our love for Him by being quiet. Rather than judgment, we are called to offer the truth. We can only see the truth that needs offering if we ourselves are first willing to be quiet enough to listen and wonder at the beauty around us.
St. Michael the Archangel, pray for us.
Our Lady of the Rosary, pray for us.
Can you think of a time when you were in a position to ask others to behave differently toward God? How did you react? What would you have done differently now?
And just for fun, here is a brief video of the cathedral bells, which my middle child recorded from the skylight of our Carcassonne apartment.
Copyright 2019 Erin McCole Cupp
Video copyright 2018 R.R.M. Cupp