Sunday, October 12, 2014

Don't socialize with others in church; socialize with God

One of the most beautiful experiences I have every time I go to Assumption Grotto is the sweetness of the silence inside the parish church.  It is more than sweet; this silence is a necessary part of the spiritual life.  It is also hard to find in many parishes today, and even entire dioceses can be devoid of such opportunities in churches.


Our fast-paced, news-now, instant-message-filled world has led us to find silence difficult to bear. We avoid it at all costs.  Life has become an endless chat session, if not with others in social media, then with ourselves as we look for ways to not be in silence. Many of us can't even fall asleep without a TV running.  We not only cheat others of our time; we cheat God, and we owe every breath we take to Him.

Multi-media enables us to watch sports, movies, and listen to music and discussions, and to interact on topics of interest, including Catholicism. I think it would be hard to argue against the thought that noise - both audible and non-audible has risen in the information and technology age.

Noise isn't just what we hear; it's what has our attention.  Workers have the necessary noise that goes with concentrating on the job; and parents with watching over children.  Many today are tending to an aging or sickly parent.  Students must read and write what is required of them.  These are necessary noises in life that we must put up with. Some tasks are mundane enough that they allow us to connect with God silently, but it is not always the case.  Peeling potatoes or fixing something in a tool shop might lend itself well to giving God our ear, unless we turn on one of the many gadgets to kill the quiet.

Silence, the language of God

If our work, school, caregiving - and the like - all require mental attention, then how do we give to God our attention?  There's no doubt when we are doing those things required of our state in life, we give glory to God.  However, we still need to provide opportunities to hear Him if we are to grow spiritually.  St. John of the Cross says, "God works His Divine operations in silence."

Luke 17:21 tells us that the Kingdom of God is within.

St. Augustine, in his Confessions wrote:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.

If God is within, then finding Him involves making time for silence in our lives.  Some are blessed with the ability to go to an Adoration chapel weekly, or even, daily.  We can choose to ride to work without any music or radio; or do the laundry and cut the grass, likewise, in silence.  This is all good.  But many are missing something very precious - that silent time before and after Mass.

Looking for silence in church…

There's been a public debate over silence in parishes before and/or after Mass, and lack thereof, for as long as I've been discussing Catholicism online (almost 10 years now).

I never experienced silence before and after Mass until I got to Assumption Grotto in Detroit.  The silence was deafening.  It shocks the casual visitor who comes, leaving them with the mistaken impression that people there are anti-social, unfriendly, and downright cold.  I somewhat felt that when I got there in 2005, but something inside peacefully nudged me to suspend judgment and just observe for a time.  I'm glad I did because God taught me something: When in God's house, give Him an ear.

People coming to any weekday or weekend Mass at Assumption Grotto can come an hour early and right up until Mass starts, might hear a cough, or footsteps, or a kneeler folding down, or a confessional door opening an closing.  What they won't hear, in most cases, is casual conversations. (Weddings, baptisms, and funerals are usually the exception, but often involve people who are not regulars, and some who are not even Catholic, so I am talking mainly of regular Masses).

I often take for granted this precious nugget we have there, and I am reminded of it any time I go to Mass outside of Grotto, with the exception of a select few other parishes in the area.  The noise levels in some places before and after Mass can rival that of a mall on Saturday morning, measured in decibels.

But, it's uncharitable not to socialize in church...

This is a common argument against silence before and after Mass.  People have not seen one another in a week and it is charitable to let them catch up with one another, especially the poor elderly person who lives alone and is finally able to connect with others at Mass.

My response to this is quite simple.  If we really cared that much about our neighbor - the one for whom church has become their primary social outlet - we wouldn't wait for Sunday to socialize with them.  We would pick up the phone during the week and call them. We would visit them or invite them out to dinner.   We might even ask them to join us for a meal after Mass.  Now that's charity in action.  That is how we go forth into the world and put on Christ!

But, most churches don't have a place to socialize after Mass…

This is another common argument - that there is no place but in church for people to greet and meet.

Well, my thinking changed on this after spending time at Assumption Grotto, which is a commuter parish.  There are very few Catholics left in the neighborhood (but the Legion of Mary is working on that).  It's an old church building so there is no parish center connected to it.  This is not uncommon for older parishes, and even newer ones.  It has a small vestibule in the back with two restrooms - hardly a place for conversations. There are two smaller vestibules at the side doors, also unsuitable talking.

Seeing a need to allow people to socialize outside of the parish church, some parishioners began a weekly social some nine years ago that has been very successful. It happens in an old school building on the property, and is a short walk from the church.  It's run mainly by one family, but the local Knights of Columbus step in and has a monthly pancake breakfast (after 9:30 and before the Noon).  There are 52 weeks out of the year, and I can count on one hand how many times we do not have some kind of social in connection with the two biggest Masses. Each Sunday we hot dogs, hamburgers, and sausages in addition to the usual coffee and donuts.  Even after the 6:30 a.m. Mass, there is a small group that gets together in the school for coffee and donuts just inside the gift shop. It does taking walking across that parking lot, but no one seems to mind.

Bottom line: We don't socialize in the church because that is where we pray. It is also where we let others pray, by taking our conversations elsewhere. People visiting may think it is one of the most anti-social churches, yet what I learned there is that people don't socialize with one another in church because they are busy socializing with God. Charity means enabling one another to have that conversation with Him.

Those who want to defend the practice of the pre-Mass social in the church could perhaps do a real service in getting others together and finding a way to help people connect around weekend Masses. What works at Grotto won't work in other places, but there are lots of solutions.

Unintended consequences of chit-chat in church...

Band-aids aren't cures; they cover wounds. The real problem is people not seeing to one another's social needs outside of our Sunday obligations.  When we make people who socialize with others in church the sole object of our charitable thinking, who gets cheated?


When we get into church 15-30 minutes early and use the time to chat with our neighbor, we have lost an opportunity to give to God that precious time.  Maybe we have nothing to say to Him; but he might have something to say to us. The greatest hindrance is not giving Him our ear in silence.  Sometimes all that God wants is for us to rest quietly in Him as a small child rests under the arm of a loving parent. We deny God that when we won't sit quietly with Him.  We are always asking something of him in prayers of petition, but how often do we spend time thanking him?  There is so much sin in the world, we could use the time to make acts of reparation (an that probably requires catechesis for people to understand).

Our fellow parishioners

For some people, that 15 or 30 minutes before Mass might be the only opportunity they have to be silent so they can hear God's voice above all others.  Among those looking for silence might be a mother with a terminally ill child who knows no human touch or words can help her the way God's love can. Perhaps it is a man who has just lost his wife of several decades and who is reconciling with his loss; or the family breadwinner dealing with the inability to find employment; or a couple having marital problems.  There are those who are discerning a vocation and those who are in secular orders fulfilling their obligations for mental prayer.  The list could go on.  Each time we talk in Church we hinder people like these in the only place they may have for a moment of silence. 


Yes. We cheat ourselves when we socialize with others in church.  Being still and silent is one of the greatest ways to predispose ourselves to worship and prayer.  It is the most efficacious way to enter holy Mass.  It's not a celebration; it's a Sacrifice.  It's only fitting that we make a small sacrifice of fixing our eyes entirely on Christ so that when we leave, we can be authentic witnesses to the Gospel.  

I should mention that in some places, including Assumption Grotto, there is a public Rosary recited after the Mass. In our case, it is led by the priest after he removes his chasuble.  People are free to stay or leave.  Most remain.  But, it's over in 15 minutes.  From there, some continue with other prayers. The 9:30 a.m. Mass, and Rosary, are done about 10:50 and until the Noon Mass begins, it's the kind of silence I described earlier.  People truly cherish and respect that holy silence.  Where I struggle with public prayers in church is when they are before AND after Mass, leaving no opportunity for silent prayer.

How do we fix it?

Let's start by addressing how we can't fix it.  I've witnessed, over the years, many frustrated priests trying to correct a congregation from talking in church, to no avail, then giving up and literally joining them.  We can't fix the problem of chit-chat in church by telling people to knock if off, telling them off, or simply telling them it's inappropriate to talk in church.   That is because people, including priests and bishops, have been conditioned for decades to accept this as being "charitable."  I hope I've provided enough considerations in this post to show that this is false charity. I've summed things up below.

It's not just a behavior we need to change, it's a mind-set.  In other words, we need to make use of reason and not make demands. I'm convinced it's the only way it will ever change, but it has to start with the parish priest praying about these things.  If the parish priest understands it, and prays to God for assistance, he will be blessed with the necessary words of reason. God will then grace his people with understanding.

Here are some main points summed up:

  • Parishioners should desire to be silent before God, whether they have anything to say to Him or not; He might have something to say to them.  

  • Parishioners need help in empathizing with the kinds of situations people might be in where silence might help them (parents dealing with terminally ill child; unemployed; those with marital issues, people discerning vocations, etc). They can't get silence at home, school, or work and there is no better place than near the Blessed Sacrament.  Not everyone has access to an Adoration chapel, or the time to be there even if that access is there.

  • Parishioners need help seeing how holy silence should be part of their spiritual development. What do we learn from the Church, from Mary, the angels, and saints about silence and the spiritual life? 

  • Help parishioners to see that real charity for lonely people comes not in defending their right to chat in church; it comes from giving them time outside of church:  Ite Missa est!  Invite them out to dinner; call them during the week to see how they are doing and catch up on what is happening in their life.  What kind of charity waits for 15 minutes before Mass on Sunday, and  limits it to that?


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