Finding Better Reasons to Stay Until the End of Mass

Over at Aleteia, Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP has a piece titled “5 Reasons to Stay Until the End of Mass.

The headline made me hope for a helpful piece on an important topic.

But already the subtitle made me wonder: “We hope our pastor and friends won’t notice if we leave early, but Someone does.” The capital S in “Someone” gives away the tenor of the piece – Mass is about one’s individual relationship with God/Christ.

To be sure, Mass is about that. But it’s not only about that. And making it only about that is how we got to the problem in the first place of people leaving Mass early.

Here are the five reasons Sr. Theresa Aletheia gives for not leaving early:

  1. Communion Is About Communing (she means with our Lord and Savior).
  2. It’s Not Nice to Be Rude (she means to Jesus, Creator of the Universe).
  3. Mass Is Not An Activity on a To-Do List.
  4. The Final Blessing is Important (because it comes from a priest who is configured to Christ).
  5. You Get MORE Grace (emphasis in original).

If this article helps people reflect on their liturgical manners and stop leaving Mass early, I suppose that’s a good thing. But not really, for the reasoning used to get there just compounds the problem.

The problem is that Catholic laity ever found it normal to leave Mass early, that their liturgical worldview saw no problem with leaving before the community’s celebration was completed. How did that strange problem arise? What went wrong over the course of the centuries? What got distorted in people’s sacramental-theology-in-practice?

Or to put it another way, why would it not occur to a Lutheran or Mennonite to sneak out habitually after they ‘got’ their Communion?

I’ll name three problems in Catholic liturgical history that are, still, deep in the Catholic psyche:

  1. Individualism: the belief that Mass is mostly about your relationship with God/Christ, that the Body of Christ is the consecrated Host but not the congregation.
  2. Clericalism: the belief that clergy are first-class followers of Christ, and laity are second-class citizens in the church.
  3. Legalism: applied to sacraments, the belief that you should calculate the legal minimum required to get the amount of grace you’re after. (This one could also be called quantification – and any time one starts talking about “more” or “less” or any other measure with respect to grace, something has gone off the rails.)

The antidote to these three problems – and to the problem of leaving Mass early – would be a renewal of our sacramental and liturgical theology along the lines advocated by the Second Vatican Council and the liturgical reform. It would be a renewal of our sense that the liturgy is a communal, corporate act that unites us more deeply to one another in Christ, that it is carried by the entire assembly under the servant-leadership of its ordained ministers, and that the grace it gives us is the personal and communal transformation of us for the sake of the world’s transformation.

I suppose someone will think that I’m pushing the horizontal at the expense of the vertical, the congregational at the expense of ordained ministry, and the psychological and political at the expense of the spiritual. This is a misunderstanding – but the fact that it arises shows our problem. We’re stuck in a world of false oppositions.

Do you see why I think Sister’s advice compounds the problem? She more or less says that Mass is (only) about a relationship with Jesus, which would be deepened by staying until the end; that the priest’s ordination makes his blessing really valuable and worth staying for; and that you should think about how to get more grace by staying until the end.

Catholic laity long since learned to think along those lines -in fact, it set in already in the first millennium. People did the calculation, weighed the pros and cons, and quite reasonably concluded that it wasn’t worth staying until the end.

Here’s the real challenge: to grasp the communal, social, transformational aspects of the Eucharist so deeply that these do not lessen, but rather deepen the personal and spiritual aspects.

It’s what the reformed liturgy calls us to.

If we get that right, the problem of leaving early would take care of itself. Then we wouldn’t have to to scold or encourage people to behave a bit better. Instead we would call them to be, as St. Augustine put it, the Body of Christ that they receive.

awr

25 comments

  1. Well, I would caution against any assumption (probably mostly subconscious, as most assumptions are) that Catholics who leave Mass early, however defined, are not a uniform group in and of themselves. They probably have different reasons, many quite particular (if you were to do a mind map of the reasons, I suspect it would be quite striking, but only if one asked questions with an open a curious mind and heart, which Catholics (especially ministers of divers sorts) are kinda programmed not to do in any institutional setting – questions are too often loaded, however subtly, but the questioners often seem to be unaware of their cognitive biases). Assuming that there’s a global solution to all of those reasons I think is setting up the matter for a failed resolution.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      Yes and No, Karl.
      A social phenomenon (such as leaving Mass early) has many possible reasons and cannot be judged univocally. But at the same time, it doesn’t mean nothing and surely reflects something (or some things).
      awr

  2. Karl is right. Many people. Many reasons. Fr Anthony is right about poor reasons.

    I don’t get trussed about people leaving early. What do they have to look forward to? Announcements that repeat what they read in the bulletin before Mass? A song they prefer not to sing. A community with which they choose non-involvement.

    I’m satisfied that minimal announcements, great music sung with a presider who’s not leaving early, and welcoming community will catch those willing to be caught. Otherwise, to use a theological term: meh.

  3. I not only wonder about the ones who leave early, I also wonder about the ones (often the same ones) who habitually arrive late. I get the sudden situations that families confront. I recall many liturgies that have started 10 minutes late because the presider had a situation (or 2) to handle. I clearly remember one Sunday when we started 30 minutes late because the presider was hearing confessions before mass. I know music directors who constantly cause the liturgy to start 5 minutes late either because of choir warm-ups or the “just one more song to rehearse with the assembly first” syndrome. When we do those kind of things, why wouldn’t the assembly think time is not of the essence? Beauty is important in our liturgical experiences but so is professionalism. As to the closing rites at mass, I’ve grown to prefer a song of praise or thanksgiving after communion with everyone singing and a solid instrumental piece at the conclusion. Everyone follows the presider. When we have done it that way, the community always responds with kudos.

  4. The best reason I ever heard to stay until the end of Mass goes something like this: the Mass is a symbolic reenactment of the Last Supper with the priest representing Jesus and the laypeople representing the apostles. At the Last Supper, one apostle – Judas – left early. He’s not the one you want to represent.

  5. At the parish I attend I become frustrated when the presider after the communion rite and before the final blessing chooses to tell the congregation all the announcements which are in the bulletin. Why do we have a bulletin if he is going to tell us all the content? A waste of time and an insult to our intelligence. No wonder people leave.

  6. As a free-lance organist, in the past two months I have played in two Roman Catholic churches, a Methodist church, a Presbyterian church, a Lutheran (ELCA) church, and an Episcopal church. I cannot say whether or not people left early in the Roman Catholic parishes. But I can say that no one left early from any of the other churches. The Roman Catholic attitude toward worship can be markedly different from non-Catholics. But, when is the liturgy over? It is over when the presider offers the Final Blessing and Dismissal. If people leave before that, it indicates (to me) that they do not truly consider themselves part of that community. I have never been able to understand the insistence on attempting to sing a hymn after the dismissal.

  7. Anthony, I think you are spot on. Our individualism, clericalism mentality and legalistic mindset too often work against the communal awareness that we are the Body of Christ, in worship of God together, called to become what, or I’d say who, we eat and drink, and sent forth to live Jesus in ways that attract people to a relationship with the Church that is the Body of Christ, and through us, with God. Even with good presiding, minimal or no announcements after the Communion Rite, and engaging music, people leave for various reasons. The comment from Joseph Burgio make me want to explore why with us and not with other denominations. Thanks you for this fine reflection.

  8. Some possible explanations – based on family experience. Catholics go to liturgy even when pressed for time because of a sense of “obligation.” Why might they leave early? Because of other obligations: getting a car to someone who needs it next to get to work; getting home to pass off child care; getting to a bathroom because one is taking a diuretic. I was once at liturgy with my aging parents and the priest used the homily to harangue the assembly on early departures, even telling the ushers on the spot to lock the doors – which they had the sense not to do. As he administered the Sacrament he kept his eye on the doors, not the communicants, and shouted “ushers, I said to lock the doors!” in the face of one startled communicant. An unbalanced and extreme example. To be sure. My suggestion to presides, musicians: think kindly of people, use mercy in making judgments, evaluate what you are doing as you plan for “full, active participation.” Talk with the assembly in the process of judging and planning. In the case of my “unbalanced presider,” I was amazed at the full church of busy people who had made the decision to assemble on the Lord’s Day. No need to lock them in.

  9. All these comments are “common” (respectfully: “expected”, “not surprising”) across the spectrum of opinions. Can we possibly gain some insight by rooting our thinking in a deeper reflection on the Latin imperative: “Ite, missa est!”?
    I’m uneasy with the “common” understanding that comes from the way this imperative has been/is translated as “The Mass is ended; go in peace.” Nice. We’re done here. It’s OKAY to leave. Feel free to go to your cars and get your donuts and newspapers at the deli across the street (as was the case in my youth).
    It’s NOT about liturgy “being OVER” — It’s about the next (week’s) liturgy JUST BEGINNING to gather (cf. Luke’s Gospel for Sunday 14C)
    ITE! = GO!!
    MISSA EST! = It’s about MISSION!
    WHO/WHAT IS SENT? = THE ECCLESIA!
    (ECCLESIA) MISSA EST!
    She as the Bride of Christ is sent to proclaim and live what has been received in Word and Eucharist. (“Go out there and win one for the Lord!”)
    Until we can form people to catch that dynamism in our liturgy, post-communion will remain nothing more than dismissive — and easily dismissed — dismissal.

  10. a wise posting. i concur wholly with the assertion about Legalism, in part because it was true of me once, and i know that it was true of my parents too.

    i do stay until the end, because I desire a sense of complete participation with my fellows.

  11. To be clear, my “meh” includes much agreement with the theological and pastoral principles expressed in these comments. That said, unless one enters into dialogue with the people who leave early in one’s community, one will never know the reasons of actual persons. Those may be reasons that cast some light on our own faults as liturgical leaders.

    To be honest, the only thing in my immediate control is the meaningfulness and quality of the music. Other people’s jobs, physical condition, and such–not so.

    If it helps, consider that people also leave early from sporting events, many of which are highly ritualized and may be, for some, something of a personal religion.

    1. @Todd Flowerday:
      Edith Wharton’s sharp social eye beat you to it: From the opening of “Age of Innocence” [which was rendered differently in the script for Scorsese’s film adaptation] – which leads me to think, What Would Wharton Say? about Catholics at Mass – the difference between an opal of observation versus PowerPoint:

      “ON a January evening of the early seventies, Christine Nilsson was singing in Faust at the Academy of Music in New York.

      Though there was already talk of the erection, in remote metropolitan distances “above the Forties,” of a new Opera House which should compete in costliness and splendour with those of the great European capitals, the world of fashion was still content to reassemble every winter in the shabby red and gold boxes of the sociable old Academy. Conservatives cherished it for being small and inconvenient, and thus keeping out the “new people” whom New York was beginning to dread and yet be drawn to; and the sentimental clung to it for its historic associations, and the musical for its excellent acoustics, always so problematic a quality in halls built for the hearing of music.

      It was Madame Nilsson’s first appearance that winter, and what the daily press had already learned to describe as “an exceptionally brilliant audience” had gathered to hear her, transported through the slippery, snowy streets in private broughams, in the spacious family landau, or in the humbler but more convenient “Brown coupé”. To come to the Opera in a Brown coupé was almost as honourable a way of arriving as in one’s own carriage; and departure by the same means had the immense advantage of enabling one (with a playful allusion to democratic principles) to scramble into the first Brown conveyance in the line, instead of waiting till the cold-and-gin congested nose of one’s own coachman gleamed under the portico of the Academy. It was one of the great livery-stableman’s most masterly intuitions to have discovered that Americans want to get away from amusement even more quickly than they want to get to it.”

  12. I knew a pastor years ago who put a small poster on the wall at the doors of the church: “The first person to leave Mass early was Judas”……

    1. @John Swencki:
      I encountered a priest mentioning that in a homily in the early 1970s.

      And, you know what, it’s a manipulative stunt speaks volumes to a feedback loop. Rulers across knuckles are more emotionally honest. A minister (clerical or lay) who does that is chiefly feeding ego and self-righteousness rather than forming people as disciples.

      1. @Lee Bacchi:
        Yeah. And when the people leave it’s because the priest had told them to “go in peace”. That directive should be given at the end of the closing song.

      2. @Lee Bacchi:
        Maybe, Lee. But I think it’d be nice for them to leave “whistling a happy tune”, so to speak. Yeah. Walk out the door singing.

  13. One pastor I know addressed this problem by posting his assistant near the entrance of the Church pacing back and forth smoking his pipe both before and after Mass. If we had a legitimate reason for being late and running that gauntlet, it was easy enough to do. If not, we would wait for the next Mass. I imagine it gave pause to the early leavers as well. Of course, this does not address the interior dispositions, but it does send a clear signal regarding what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior. And from there one might reason his way to why his behavior is not up to the mark.

  14. One thing which really interferes with my “end of mass” is when the celebrating priest decides to let a layperson or ANYONE ELSE for ANY OTHER REASON say something at the ambo immediately after communion. I really think that we need to preserve some sort of continuity thru the end of communion to the closing prayer and dismissal. After that, it is prettymuch fair game. I don’t quite know what this post’s definition of “leaving early” is… Ideally everyone should be staying after mass in their pews to quietly reflect… before going downstairs to drink coffee and chat…… but that is MY ideal. I wish that every dismissal went like this:
    1- communion chant ends as the last person receives communion
    2- option for a hymn or psalm for meditation after communion
    2.5 – silence
    3- option for the priest or congregation to say a prayer of thanksgiving
    4- “Let us pray”… the closing prayer
    5- dismissal, per the order of the mass, with possible solemn blessings.
    6- announcements of all sorts (if they were not already handled in the sermon)
    7- Seasonal Marian Antiphon (it really works)
    9- Closing Hymn (The Out-trot)
    10- prayers after mass (St. Michael, etc.)
    11- Coffee

    I have heard of parishes where the priest would hold a moment – sometimes 10 minutes – of silence after communion…. I wish I could see that at my parish. A full congregation in adoration in silence for 10 minutes would be an amazing thing to behold. What power a community would have if they achieved that! We are talking about super-hero-movie level power here. Hearts would melt, walls would crumble, and the hangers-on and unbelieving-yet-attending spouses would convert.

    PRIESTS need to take the reigns and control their dismissals.

  15. Just occurred to me….
    At the closing song, different presiders have different times when leaving the altar– some leave immediately when the song begins, others wait a verse or two, etc.
    But…. should …. or should not….. the presider’s/ministers’ leaving coincide with the congregation’s leaving? The priest/ministers leading the congregation “out on mission”? Or should EVERYONE remain in place until the closing song is finished.
    What is, after all, the purpose of the closing song– to put a “finale” on the liturgy or to accompany the congregation’s recessing?

  16. As a presider, I have no problem when some come late, or some leave early. As Mary Collins noted, there may be good reasons which others may know nothing about. That happened to me once (1988), and since then, I have refrained from saying and thinking anything about such situations. But I do think that Sr. Theresa’s reasoning leaves much to be desired.

  17. So it’s not a matter of good manners to stay until the end of a celebration except for really pressing reasons?

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