The Chattering Classes Are Us

George Weigel, posting at First Things, laments the chattering in Catholic churches.

42 comments

  1. I’ve worked for parishes for almost 23 years. I can happily report that for long stretches of the day and well into the night, an atmosphere of quiet or near-silence exists. The parking lot is darn near empty, too.

    Personally, my favorite church-time is about two hours before Mass: before the choir arrives, before the lines form for the confessor, and before the bustle of people doing the things that people do in great numbers: make noise.

    As a religion author, George Weigel doesn’t need me to tell him when to find a quiet church, but I have to wonder why he’s on the bandwagon for one-stop spiritual shopping. Some people seem to want to go to Mass, talk to God, enjoy delicious silence, drop off their tithe, and bustle their kids off to faith formation while they enjoy a 25-cent donut and coffee. It’s a nice picture of pastoral sixty-five-minute convenience, but is it a reasonable expectation?

    Speaking of “AmChurchSpeak,” I’d say that Mr Weigel has produced a classic piece of AmChurchSpeak: expecting an authority figure (perhaps his favorite pope?) to come down hard on all those naughty boys and girls interrupting pious eyes raised to heaven (the eye-roll of the dutiful son?)

    I always wonder how much carpeting churches contributed to pewchatter. When you have resonant spaces, many people are less likely to want to stand out for making a peep. In a padded room I can experiment with harmony and I feel nobody would hear me, even if it were during the post-Communion silence.

  2. Todd, I think Weigel’s favorite Pope went to his reward in April 2005.

    Where in his article do you ascertain that Weigel wants an authority figure to silence the chatterers? He clearly hopes that, during this year of prepping for the debut of the corrected English translation, our LOCAL pastors and “liturgical directors” might encourage greater decorum in our churches. What do you find so onerous?

  3. “What do you find so onerous?”

    1. The needless sarcasm.

    2. The arrogant officiousness

    3. The laziness: Come back when the church is empty, George.

    4. The notion that the intrusion of the divine into the world is somehow a bad thing

    5. The fussiness about the sign of peace

    6. The bother about the post-Mass joy

    7. Sometimes I wish the elder son would just go out and slaughter his own fatted calf.

    Honestly, I had to stretch to find anything redeeming in the piece at all. This essay was made for a skewer.

  4. I have to admit, there is a very different sense of “The Sacred” when there is a church full of people before Mass, and yet there is absolute silence. This isn’t the experience at my (or most) parishes unfortunately.

    I have experienced that when visiting John Cantius in Chicago. Ditto for Assumption Grotto when I have gone there. Which begs the question… what makes those churches in particular demand that kind of reverence? I am talking about the physical space/ environment, not the staff! Walking into John Cantius, there is a feeling that even speaking would be out of place. I would really like some reflections on why that is.

    1. Architecture and beauty do set the tone. High ceilings are a reminder of heaven. Modern Catholic Church ceilings are generally lower and less ornate – to accomodate horizontal worship -. The music is often a good imitation of lounge music or ‘coffee shop’ tunes. These ordinary things do help put people in the mood to talk with one another, forgetting that they are not in an ordinary place.

  5. Mr Weigel’s essay betrays some magical thinking about what the missal revision is likely to accomplish.

  6. What a waste of time….obviously he doesn’t know the GIRM; the black and red in terms of end of eucharist/recessionals; pastoral sensitivities around gathering for the eucharist; etc.

    Think he could learn from Hovda or others who have written about this tension.

  7. There seems to be a bit of confusion in the article about distinctions in prayer forms. I firmly support the idea that there is a need for a place of quiet reverence and reflection for PRIVATE, PERSONAL, NON-LIUEGICAL DEVOTIONAL prayer, ideally in a chapel of reservation of the MOST BLESSED SACRAMENT apart from the main liturgical space which admittedly can be noisy and messy when the People of God gather. This method would “kill two birds with one stone. Free the assembly up during the Eucharist to focus on the altar of sacrifice and provide a place of reflective devotion for outside the Liturgy and a place for quiet reflectio BEFORE or AFTER the Eucharist. Give me a church

    Gi
    Be

  8. From the GIRM on Dismissal:

    . THE CONCLUDING RITES

    90. The concluding rites consist of

    Brief announcements, if they are necessary;

    The priest’s greeting and blessing, which on certain days and occasions is enriched and expressed in the prayer over the People or another more solemn formula;

    The dismissal of the people by the deacon or the priest, so that each may go out to do good works, praising and blessing God;

    The kissing of the altar by the priest and the deacon, followed by a profound bow to the altar by the priest, the deacon, and the other ministers.

    Nothing about a hymn, song, music, procession, etc.

    1. But if you read the whole GIRM, you’ll find e.g. [my emphasis]:

      186. Then, together with the priest, the deacon venerates the altar with a kiss, makes a profound bow, and departs in a manner similar to the procession beforehand.

      Also see Musicam Sacram 36 (vocal) and 65 (instrumental):

      36. There is no reason why some of the Proper or Ordinary should not be sung in said Masses. Moreover, some other song can also, on occasions, be sung at the beginning, at the Offertory, at the Communion and at the end of Mass. It is not sufficient, however, that these songs be merely “Eucharistic” — they must be in keeping with the parts of the Mass, with the feast, or with the liturgical season.

      65. In sung or said Masses, the organ, or other instrument legitimately admitted, can be used to accompany the singing of the choir and the people; it can also be played solo at the beginning before the priest reaches the altar, at the Offertory, at the Communion, and at the end of Mass.

      The same rule, with the necessary adaptations, can be applied to other sacred celebrations.

      So how does his piece contradict the liturgical legislation?

  9. A couple of observations:

    -I am curious about how widespread the conversational Pax is. I’ve rarely encountered it. And I am someone who has lingered in progressively-inclined Catholic communities. I *have* seen the Pax unduly prolonged by the celebrant’s desire to go down the entire main aisle or along the first row (a practice I don’t find particularly edifying), but even then the Pax did not turn conversational. The author lives in the Bethesda area – is this more common there? Could it be a Beltway thing (the political habit of networking; or perhaps informed by Evangelical culture that becomes dominant south of the Mason-Dixon line)? Up here in frosty New England, we get criticized by Southerners for not being chattily friendly, after all….

    -A choral postlude? I question the *practical* wisdom of such a practice. Choral preludes, yes, but postludes are generally instrumental and not quiet.

    1. Quite right, Karl.

      In the midwest, I’d say there’s some effort to be “equitable,” to shake hands and offer peace to all the people in one’s vicinity. Even at our parish’s student weeknight Mass, the Pax tends to lengthen, not from a sense of conversation with close friends, but to make sure one offers a small peace to a somewhat larger number of peers.

  10. With the decreasing number of priests and people, Masses in most places can be scheduled with two hours between Mass start times, so that effectively there would be a half hour before Mass and after Mass. Those brief periods of time could be used to provide many of the attractions that have been used by the mega-churches, a wide variety of brief interesting activities. This would be an efficient use of peoples time and make church services more attractive.

    I suspect the idea of silent prayer before Mass and/or after Mass is a product of recent centuries with the advent of pews for sitting, and kneelers for praying, and the general rule of middle class notions of behavior. My impression of earlier centuries is that of gathering rites, e.g. processions, the celebration of the Divine Office or something similar that occupied people until the official start of Mass. The nave of the Church in many places and centuries was considered the people’s part, and was often used for civic gatherings, markets, etc. So rowdy behavior far worse than chattering likely often occurred. When people assembled. it was important to provide them with something to do.

    Yes there is probably a substantial minority that would like silence to reign before and after Mass. However in a local parish, the new music minister decided to move the choir practice before Mass to another location. Her musical motivation was to hear the members better, but she thought some people would like silence and therefore be pleased. However, the people missed the choir practice before Mass, a vote was taken 50% to 25% in favor of choir practice before Mass with another 25% saying they did not care.

    The lesson in all this is to think deeply and consult widely before making any sudden moves or decrees about what goes on before and after Mass. One size fits all rules probably will not work.

    1. Yes, for quite a while, the culture of the liturgy was such that it didn’t matter what the people in the nave were doing or not doing, all that mattered was what was happening in the sanctuary, that the liturgy was performed correctly. It’s only with the conciliar reforms that we have many rubrics directing the actions of the faithful outside the sanctuary (as opposed to the servers who acted as their proxies within the sanctuary).

    2. And among some liturgists so much effort is made to ignore (or at least to remain silent about) the rubrics that apply to the people in the nave, i.e. kneeling for the canon, the striking of the breast during the confiteor, the profound bow during the credo …

      I will never forget just a few short years ago listening to a diocesan director of liturgy explain to a large assembly that there is no longer any rubric telling the people to strike their breast during the Mass, those kinds of gestures belonged to the old form. After objections from simple laity among the parishioners who knew the liturgy well an assistant had to point out to him the rubric applying to the confiteor from the Sacramentary/GIRM and, after a bit of a pause, the diocesan director of liturgy said, “I guess it is there after all”.

      1. That individual should not have been serving as a diocesan director of liturgy, as he/she apparently did not even know the common rubrics from the sacramentary. What an unfortunate situation.

      2. I think many ecclesiastical professionals have their own narrative of what is, what isn’t, what should work and what can never work. My experience is that they often work within a circle of like-minded individuals and rarely step far outside their comfort zone. This may, in part, explain why the last fifteen years have been so difficult for so many of them. Too much deviates too far from the narrative.

    3. –I suspect the idea of silent prayer before Mass and/or after Mass is a product of recent centuries with the advent of pews for sitting, and kneelers for praying, and the general rule of middle class notions of behavior. My impression of earlier centuries is that of gathering rites, e.g. processions, the celebration of the Divine Office or something similar that occupied people until the official start of Mass–

      Jack R,

      I think you are more familiar with Orthodox worship than I am. Are the Orthodox, pewless as I understand, more rowdy than we are?

      Bringing up the more distant past is a valid thing to do…but I think we can see a lot of the distant past by watching how parallel churches, e.g. Armenian, Georgian, Ethiopian, Russian, have developed and currently behave.

      Do they yack it up pretty good?

      George

      1. As far as I know there are few Orthodox churches in the US that do not have pews. (I have seen pictures of one very traditional Byzantine Catholic church in Canada which does not have pews). However it is true that they do stand a lot. While if one knows a lot about liturgical history, one can often identify early church practices in Orthodox Churches, they also have undergone a lot of development over the centuries, so I would not assume that Orthodox Church behavior is automatically “early church.”

        In regard to history, a book you might find interesting is Augustine Thompson Cities of God which describes the ordinary religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325. The situation was actually very complex (pre-Trent Mass) interesting and does not fit easily into any modern stereotypes either conservative or liberal.

        Thompson says (p.255) “ Instructions emanating from the medieval Church hierarchy instructed the faithful to be silent and still during Mass. The impression is one of imposed passivity. Since the people were quite active when presenting their offerings, kissing the Pax, and sharing the Eulogia (blessed bread), the image of passivity is certainly deceptive. How silent were they? Not very. Well-know strictures against noise and motion concern not adults but the children they brought with them.”

        Thompson then proceeds to detail all the elaborate gestures that devotional literature at the time encouraged during Mass. These were popular piety not liturgical rubrics. Given Thompson’s descriptions elsewhere in the book of the organization and care of churches in these cities (sanctuary by clergy, nave by laity) and the use of the nave for other public gatherings, it seems likely that much of the devotional literature was an attempt to give people something physical to do during Mass. These gestures were fairly well attuned to the parts of the Mass and the liturgical seasons, feasts, etc.

  11. Thanks, Jack – you summarized and analyzed much better than I. Agree wholeheartedly with your last point and that is why Weigel’s points caught my attention.

  12. According to Weigel’s theology, he advocates invading foreign countries for profit and spreading fear about other religions- but he doesn’t chat in church. The pre Vatican II moralists are starting to salivate.

      1. Weigel certainly has no problem arguing for it with endless energy and inventiveness. What’s less certain is whether the “pre Vatican II moralists” (btw, did the Council change the moral law?) are uniformly in agreement with this.

      2. I never claimed the “for profit” part. My observation was that when it comes to foreign policy Weigel’s neocon dues are paid-in-full. A despicable position IMO, but utterly irrelevant to talking in church. How odd that anyone should associate one view with the other.

  13. Let me offer the flip side of this problem. What does it say about us when so many Catholics can be members of a parish for decades without being able to name a single person in the pews around them?

    Reverent silence has its place, but when Mass becomes just one more occasion to be alone in a crowd, something is very wrong.

    1. Yes!, but Brigid, wouldn’t you agree that all things have their proper place?

      Socializing needs to be done, but it needs to be done in the proper place…which I believe is just about anywhere but during worship, where the focus should be: all minds, together, as a community, on God and not on Friday night’s football game, nor on building one’s social network. IMO the more we try to make going to church about wanting to see our friends or making new ones, the more we are in danger of making it about us wanting to be seen and to impress others.

      Just because I believe you shouldn’t be conversing when others are trying to pray, that doesn’t mean you can’t start talking when you exit the Church or are in the parish hall. A pastor can encourage this by making the hall available and hospitable and might even say why it is good for Christians to greet one another and love one another, but not to gossip or pry into one another’s business or see socializing as a way to advance professional contacts. These dangers always lurk.

      1. But, if we don’t talk during Mass, it might mean we get to our cars too late.

        The “beat the rush to the cars” dynamic was firmly in place in US Catholicism by the 1950s (all those Low Masses before noon, scheduled tight enough to just allow the turnover in the parking areas – it was probably a practical if ignoble mercy that some people didn’t arrive until the Gospel and left right after Communion). While it didn’t cause chattering in church, it has contributed to the foundation for it. (Even though there have been anticipated Masses and more room for space between Masses on Sundays for a couple of generations, the dominant segment of Massgoers today are people whose habits were formed in the postwar generation, and it continues to influence us to this day.)

      2. Massgoers of all ages and persuasions — even very traditional — will hang around afterward and socialize, strengthening their communal bonds, if a venue is provided. Of the 10 EF sites I’ve visited in the US and abroad (in the past 6 years), most have provided such a venue, and people do meet and greet up to an hour or more. If no place is provided, people will take the hint and depart, so it’s up to the pastor to make them feel welcome.

      3. I’m sure there are people who gossip, pry into another’s business or use socializing to advance business contacts. But what if the conversation is to exchange congratulations about a grand child’s success, to enquire about someone out of work, to express concern over an elderly parent’s health? How can we properly revere the Body of Christ in the tabernacle while ignoring the Body of Christ seated next to us? I think that greeting those around us before Mass can be just as much preparation as engaging in silent prayer. Of course, once Mass begins, courtesy requires that people be quiet so all can hear.

        I would add, that I’ve noticed the rush to the cars most often in parishes where the priest hews strictly to “read the red, do the black” (or is it the other way around?) I’ve also been in parishes where Masses can start late or go long because the priest chats with people before Mass or otherwise treats Mass more as a family meal than a strict ritual. I’ve noticed that people attending those Masses not only stay to the end, but linger after. Each to his own, perhaps, but the family style seems to attract more people than the strict style.

      4. Socializing during Mass is very acceptable in the following contexts: Prayers of the faithful, when people share their prayers for friends and relatives and absent members of the community;the kiss of peace — at the Indonesian mass here in Sophia University this involves every member of the community warmly greeting every other member; self-introductions after the communion prayer — this is a way of building bonds of affection.

  14. Brigid R–that I’ve noticed the rush to the cars most often in parishes where the priest hews strictly to “read the red, do the black” (or is it the other way around?) I’ve also been in parishes where Masses can start late or go long because the priest chats with people before Mass or otherwise treats Mass more as a family meal than a strict ritual. I’ve noticed that people attending those Masses not only stay to the end, but linger —

    Now, you can’t have it both ways! Brigid, you are active in your own parish…..where do you find the time to go to enough conservative parishes to be able to tell me ‘that’s the way it is’ in conservative parishes?

    Don’t you mean…that’s the way you imagine it to be? btw attending an occasional funeral or wedding or other special occasion in a strange parish might not give you an accurate impression of how things normally transpire!

    There is a -i-know-you-are-but-what-am-i? (Not with Brigid)phenomenon going on around with some contributors here. The logic goes like this:

    e.g. if conservative priests complain about homosexual sex in the priesthood, therefore conservative priests must be mostly homosexual.
    and…..e.g. if conservatives complain about church chatter, therefore, sicut Karl Liam, conservatives from the 50’s must be to blame.

    Please remind me not to complain!!

    1. Mr. Andrews –

      I based my remarks on observing what goes on in the parish where I grew up, what happened at a parish which I attended for six years in one town, and what goes on in parishes I’ve been associated with for the last 25 some years. I happen to live in a town that had two parishes separated by about 1/2 mile. The formal parish was dying on the vine; the informal parish growing steadily.

      Mr. Saur suggested that people talk in Church so they can get out the parking lot sooner after Mass. I was offering a suggestion that people who actually come together before Mass might be more willing to remain to the end of Mass.

      1. Brigid R–I happen to live in a town that had two parishes separated by about 1/2 mile. The formal parish was dying on the vine; —

        Brigid,

        It might help to temper your anecdotal observations with the simple fact that the ‘formal’ church, our formal, 1960 Catholic Church was not ‘dying on the vine’. Compare any set of statistics: priest to parishioner ratio, sheer numbers of women religious, ratio of Catholic school children to Catholic public school children, number of churches and Catholic schools being boarded up, etc….

        Which of those might tell you that your personal judgment is true? What set of statistics might give you hope that our ‘informal’ post conciliar American Catholic Church is not ‘dying on the vine’?

        Give me some hope here!

  15. There is a large research literature correlating weekly church attendance with positive benefits, e.g. better health, more happiness, and better citizenship. For a long time researchers speculated whether it was a religious effect (e.g. the content of the worship service) or a social effect (the people one meets when attending church).

    The new book American Grace has done a very good analysis of the issue. The answer is that it is the combination of both religion and people. If you go to church and pray but don’t know anyone, you get few benefits. However if you pray with people you know, the benefits are far more than if you just socialize with them without praying.

    As Putnam, the author of Bowling Alone puts it: “Praying together seems to be better than either bowling together or praying alone.”

    1. Jack, this is fascinating and important data. But how do we know if it is causal? Could it be that already happy people are more likely to seek out worship where they know people, so that the worship is symptom rather than cause? Rather like already healthy people who eat all the right things and exercise and take care of themselves and thus are more likely to go get flu shots?
      awr

  16. Father Anthony,

    What convinces me of the importance of their analysis is the content of their index of religious social networks: 1) number of close friends in your congregation, 2) participation in small groups in your congregation, and 3) frequency of talking about religion with family and friends.

    I plan to submit a post on the Index of Religious Networks since I think it is the most important part of American Grace. Putnam is the expert on social capital. Of course since my interest is in voluntarism, I have spent a lot of time with the social capital literature and may be biased.

    I gave you two earlier posts on American Grace in the hopes that people will go out and a get it since I think its going to be a classic like Bowling Alone. Thought I would give people January and February to get in some reading time and maybe people will be more likely to be in a position to reread the appropriate section (Chapter 13), and discuss it.

    More to come in a few weeks.

  17. Jack R –While if one knows a lot about liturgical history, one can often identify early church practices in Orthodox Churches, they also have undergone a lot of development over the centuries, so I would not assume that Orthodox Church behavior is automatically “early church.”–

    Nice deflection of my question! Which was whether not people in Eastern Orthodox churches socialize inside the church like we American Catholics like to.

    What is your impression from your own observations? Don’t tell me you have already despaired of following that line of reasoning and don’t want to pursue it.

    If Eastern Orthodox are already leading the way with social networking before Mass, I won’t feel like we are getting so far out on a limb. Talking before Mass might be an ecumenical step forward! Oh, btw how are they with hand Communion and versus populum worship?

    just wondering.

  18. Reverent silence has its place, but when Mass becomes just one more occasion to be alone in a crowd, something is very wrong.

    Point taken, but I would submit that part of the problem is the size of most U.S. parishes. In my former Lutheran parish we all knew each other and the sense of connection was strong but we were about 300 members worshipping at two Sunday services. The same was true at the ethnic Polish Catholic parish my husband grew up in, most of the parishioners knew each other either through the liturgies or the parish school.

    As for the Orthodox and hand communion, I doubt that will happen. Orthodox Christians receive by intinction, the consecrated bread is dipped into the consecrated wine and served on a spoon by the priest. The elements never touch the communicant’s hands. Orthodoxy is far more conservative liturgically than Novus Ordo Catholicism.

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