Liturgy Lines: Arriving Late and Leaving Early

by Elizabeth Harrington. This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on August 23rd, 2017.

Some time ago I came across an article entitled ‘Correcting Bad Habits at Mass’ by Rev Robert Duggan. One of the seven bad habits he addresses is that of arriving late for Mass and/or leaving early. Here is part of what he had to say:

“We consider it as normal that large numbers of Catholics routinely do this. Yet God has ordained that we gather as an assembly in order to worship. We do not simply worship alone or as a family, nor are we meant to be a collection of individuals attending the priest’s Mass in our own separate little compartments. Rather we are the people of God, the body of Christ gathered in the name of Christ and constituted as a faith community under the power of the Holy Spirit. The casualness of chronic late-coming and early-leaving verges on being an insult to the community of the baptised who have gathered to worship the Almighty and to build up the body of Christ. It fosters a style of Christianity that caters to self-interest and laziness.”

Look, I know that we are all busy and that it is great that people manage to get to Mass at all, but I have to say that those who habitually arrive well after Mass has started or walk out as soon as they have received Communion often distract and frustrate their fellow worshippers.

The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy states quite clearly that it is all of us who celebrate liturgy: “In the liturgy the whole public worship is performed by the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, that is, by the Head and his members.”(#7)

The liturgy documents also tell us that Christ is present amongst the people gathered for worship and that, when the Sacred Scriptures are read in the Church, God himself speaks to his people. I cannot help but wonder if people would make a real effort to be on time if they were aware that Christ was in the assembly or that God was doing the first reading! But Christ is and God does!

Arriving after Mass has begun is not like being late for a concert. It is more like one of the musicians wandering in after the rest of the orchestra has started playing. Leaving Mass before it is finished is akin to Nathan Lyon heading home after he has finished bowling his overs. And surely worship is more important than a concert or a cricket match!

It would be an interesting exercise to consider what other bad habits at Mass we would add to the list, and why. Here are the other items on Robert Duggan’s list:

  • Refusing to sing
  • Evaluating the liturgical experience on the basis of personal taste.
  • Serving communion, instead of Eucharist, to some worshippers at Mass.
  • Communicating under only one species.
  • Reciting prayers that ought to be sung.
  • Undervaluing the songs we do sing.

There’s food for thought – and agenda for parish liturgy committee meetings – there!

© Liturgy Brisbane. Liturgy Lines columns are accessible on the Liturgy Brisbane website.


  1. I can understand the motivation behind all the items on the list except one. I’m confused about the inclusion of, “Communicating under only one species” as a “bad habit”. I’ve been to many masses where the Eucharist was only provided under the species of bread. I have also elected in many cases to receive under a single species. My understanding of Eucharistic teaching is that doing so does not compromise the Sacrament or reduce the grace received. Rather, the fullness of Christ is present in both species entirely.

    1. Dear Will,

      Thanks for your comment.

      General Instruction of the Roman MIssal says this at 281:
      “Holy Communion has a fuller form as a sign when it is distributed under both kinds. For in this form the sign of the eucharistic banquet is more clearly evident and clear expression is given to the divine will by which the new and eternal Covenant is ratified in the Blood of the Lord, as also the relationship between the Eucharistic banquet and the eschatological banquet in the Father’s Kingdom.”

      Then, after laying out the doctrine of concomitance (that the fullness of Christ is present in either species), it concludes 282 with these words: “The faithful should be encouraged to seek to participate more eagerly in this sacred rite, by which the sign of the Eucharistic banquet is made more fully evident.”

      Pray Tell ran this story a bit ago on this topic – I think you’ll find it interesting.


  2. I’m not sure why, but this business of arriving late and leaving early just doesn’t bother me much at all. I don’t think it’s just because I’m a slacker Catholic (personally, I hate arriving late and would only leave early if something had made me irate and my soul was in peril). I figure that if people arrive late it’s because 1) they have a good reason (traffic on the highway, trying to get anywhere with little kids, etc.) or 2) they are just chronically chronologically challenged. I see no reason to feel insulted by this.

    And if people leave after communion or before the final hymn, is that really much worse than those who exit immediately after the closing hymn without greeting others or doing anything to build up the community outside of Mass?

    Maybe it’s just a function of a general state of discouragement about the Church these days, but I’m happy if people manage to show up at all.

    1. I’m right there with you, Fritz. Especially on late arrivals. I think we uncharitably put insert our own agendas (“he/she doesn’t like the music/the words of welcome/etc.”) instead of walking a mile in the shoes of our assembly.

      I know the father, whose wife just left him, with 4 young girls who always shows up late, because getting home from work late, and then getting the family ready takes a lot of effort. I’m glad he just shows up.

      I knew the farmer, with the cow which was about to give birth, but just not that soon. I’m glad he just showed up.

      I know from working in both African American and Hispanic parishes that different cultures have a different sense of time. I learned that I can’t be offended as a good German American.

      I know yours truly, living in a metro area, discovers the subway or bus is mysteriously delayed. I know I’ve gotten stuck in traffic delayed by football games and Madonna concerts. I know I’ve been shocked to discover roads are closed for parades and marathons. I hope people forgive me for showing up late.

      If we sing/say “All are welcome”–and really want to convey it–we just have to smile and say “welcome, we’re glad you’re here!” And maybe instead of assuming worst intent, maybe we can ponder how we as a parish community can be welcoming and more accommodating. Do we make sure have childcare available for parents? Do we post on our parish Facebook & Twitter accounts and send out a Constant Contact reminders about upcoming sporting events, concerts, marathons, parades that might complicate the commute? (For our Hispanic community, it’s all communicated via WhatsApp.) Do we critically look our schedules for Sundays and holy days to match the lives of parishioners (e.g. how can any parish in the US really a Good Friday afternoon service in 2018)?

      What’s a bad habit according to the author may not be “bad” or a “habit,” whatsoever.

  3. I know of people who on purpose come late or leave early because they are so annoyed about endless words of welcome at the beginning and self-congratulatory words of thanks at the end. Voting with the feet is the only thing the faithful can do in such situations.

  4. Latecomers should at least have the courtesy to take their places quietly and unobtrusively, instead of making a ’grand entrance’ by crossing the church between the priest and the assembly. Ushers have a role to play here.

  5. “Leaving Mass before it is finished is akin to Nathan Lyon heading home after he has finished bowling his overs.”

    Couldn’t bring it into starker relief than that. 🙂

  6. “Arriving after Mass has begun is not like being late for a concert. It is more like one of the musicians wandering in after the rest of the orchestra has started playing. ”

    I like the metaphor here. But I don’t suppose many people really believe that to be true.

    A typical Sunday morning mass attendance for our parish would be 500 people. If a violin section has 500 violins, and one, or even 25, don’t show up, does it really matter? It’s pretty easy to answer, It doesn’t matter. Come to think of it, half our 500 violinists aren’t playing during the songs anyway!

      1. Time change!

        In the years when Daylight Saving Time began on the first Sunday in April (1987-2006), and thus on weekend where Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday was likely to fall with some frequency – also Sundays where many parishes temporarily modify their Sunday morning Mass times to accommodate longer liturgies – one of the perks of being a liturgical minister would be to behold the surprised faces of people entering the already-packed church during, say, the Eucharistic Prayer.

        (Less striking, but still a thing, would be the opposite side of the year, when people who are accustomed to arriving in media res find themselves, with some consternation, to have arrived quite early.)

        It always surprises me how many people are caught completely unaware by time change. (I change my clocks and watch on Friday evening, and adjust sleep and meal times accordingly; works wonders. It’s an old traveler’s trick for reducing the ill effects of jet lag. I am one of many folks in eastern New England that would love to be on Atlantic Standard Time year-round…)

  7. Pastoral leaders definitely have a role to play in some of these. With regards to the Catholic phenomenon that people don’t sing at mass, I bet a large part of this is because the music offered at many churches is led/accompanied poorly and/or the music itself is sometimes darn unsingable (awkward meters, syncopated rhythms, and challenging tonal ranges). I always cringe when a music director feels a need to “practice” difficult pieces with the congregation before mass, when all it does is prove that the DM is just doubling down on a bad piece that no one will sing anyway. I think we have a lot to learn from Mainline Protestants and their vast treasury of simple but beautiful hymn tunes that can be easily sung after one verse.

    Some have probably mentioned this before, but concerns about spreading disease through the Precious Blood can be easily mitigated by training EMHCs to open the purificator and wipe the lip of the chalice on a new part of the cloth after every communicant. Plus, the small alcohol content in the Blood and the antiseptic qualities in metal chalices (yet another reason to use those recommended by the GIRM) help make the likelihood of spreading disease through the Blood actually fairly small. That some parishes or even whole dioceses serve only the Body during an entire flu season is more an indictment of their unsanitary liturgical practices (or thinly veiled ulterior motives) than anything else.

    I’ll get off my soapbox for now, I could go on and on about how we can help break “bad habits.”

    1. The other vector with the chalice is actually the handling of it. Things that people grip are things to which viruses (tougher to kill than bacteria) and bacteria are more likely to adhere. Door knobs … most infamously, gasoline/petrol pumps. If the chalice were administered so that congregants didn’t hold it, that might reduce concerns. Which is about as likely to happen as patens being reintroduced beneath the reception of hosts in the hand. (Even if both are, um, contemplated…)

      It’s not clear if essay’s reference to a “bad habit” concerning the “communicating under one species” is more about failing to offer it, rather than exercising the choice not to partake from it (it’s worded to be the latter, strictly speaking, but it strikes me that might have been unintentional). I would agree with the former, not the latter. I suspect the moment Catholic liturgists start to label the choice not to partake as a bad one is the moment they rush up a hill they ought not die on; it’s so counterproductive, as it partakes of a certain liturgical brittleness (the toggle from lauding a practice to negatively labelling a choice not to partake of said practice) that the conciliar reform ought not be burdened with.

    2. The expression ‘That some parishes or even whole dioceses serve only the Body…’ is in dire need of rephrasing.

  8. Apropos Jim’s second comment: Weather and travel issues excepted, I swim every day when my local pool opens (5AM on weekdays, 6:30AM on weekends). If I don’t show up, and have failed to alert my fellow regulars (who swim either daily or every other day) that I won’t be there, people are concerned. I cannot think of that happening in a Catholic parish for *weekend* Mass attendance other than very small parishes where there’s one Sunday Mass and no alternatives for over an hour’s drive around. (I can, however, easily imagine it for “daily communicants”.)

    To put this in a larger context: when Catholics leave parishes, it’s typically not noticed.

    (Query: Didn’t pastors once have a canonical or quasi-canonical obligation to visit their parishioners? How much do pastors really know their flock?)

    (Note: I am normally *very* early to Mass; I feel late if I don’t have at least 10 minutes to prepare, preferably a half hour, for prayer and contemplation of the readings; in recent years, because of the location of my chosen parish, I am usually there over a hour in advance, though not in the church itself. I rarely leave my chosen parish Mass early (unless the homily and ritual or other idiosyncratic events make things run even longer than it already drools on), but I will leave after the Dismissal and omit the hymn (if any) in other places when that hymn is [insert negative adjective of choice here] or logistical considerations of making it out without being too much in other people’s way advise.)

  9. Some of these presumed bad habits can be seen as push-backs against a newer brand of legalism (post Vatican II) not unlike the “pray, pay, and obey” legalism of the pre-Vatican II era.

    “Everyone sing now; everyone look at the person reading and don’t use written texts to follow along; everyone hold hands; everyone march in your line to Communion singing, gazing at lovingly at the person giving you Communion, etc.”

    Is Mass for forming disciples or borgs? Feigning unity by uniformity doesn’t work. And reciting prayers that ought to be sung (which is most of them) is not a bad habit, it’s an abuse.

  10. Just a question – in which countries is Communion actually given in both kinds? I only experienced it in Britain, the US, and Denmark, thus countries, in which the predominant Protestant denominations have a long-established tradition of communion in both kinds. In German-speaking countries, it is extremely unusual, and I think the same is the case in France and Italy.

    1. Well if the Protestants are inspiring us Catholics to do better, that’s a very good thing! And of course the goal is that we all gradually grow closer together. The words of our Lord, in fact his express command, would be a good basis for that. It was part of our tradition until the 13th century at least, until the late Middle Ages in some places, and permitted right after Trent by concession in some places. I’ve seen it done in Catholic communities in Germany but can’t speak to the other countries.

      1. It seems to have been pretty common in Munich when I lived there last year. But maybe Munich wasn’t representative for the entire country.

        However, unlike the US where the general rule seems to be “1 bread => 2 cups”, it seemed to me the rule in Munich was “4 breads => 1 cup.”

        It’s hard to know what the chicken & egg is here. If I was seated somewhere where reaching the cup was logistically challenging, I didn’t push through the assembly to get to the chalice. And self-intinction seemed to be the preferred method for 99% of those who did wade over to the chalice.

      2. In Munich? I would expect that in St Boniface or St Ursula, but not in the normal Sunday Masses of the more mainstream parishes.

        By the way, I have no axe to grind on this point – it only seemed to me interesting that Communion in both kinds does not seem to develop unless Protestant parishes nearby function as models (or maybe converts from Protestantism ask for it).

  11. I’m with friends above who have said that late arrivals and early departures don’t bother me too much. I doubt these are a true distraction in communities used to the behavior. Except for latecomers who try to squeeze into a favorite seat and nudge the occupant into unfamiliar territory.

  12. One wee liturgical fact/request from those of us who train EMOHCs… if the pastor does not provide a water heater booster to provide boiling hot water to the sacristy used for cleansing chalices, they will never be sanitized. And anyone training EMOHCs should both train them to open the purificator to use all 4 sides, and move down an inch if they return to side 1; tbey should also provide a threefold training brochure.

  13. Don’t presume to know or judge people’s motivations or situations. I occasionally stop by neighboring parishes to check out what they are doing musically and liturgically, sometimes catching just the first or last part of Mass before I have to get back to my own church. Once an usher confronted me as I was leaving after the homily, “hey, Mass is not over yet.” I said this was my fourth Mass of the weekend in three different churches, and I had to get to Mass #5 before it started. He didn’t know what to say.

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