A Prodigal Catholic Returns: Field Notes, Transcriptions, and Scene

On Sunday, March 22, I made the decision to go to church. It was the first time since I was 16 that I went without a death or memorial service dictating obligatory attendance.

I entered the church and moved to the far left. Why? Comfort. That was the area I always sat in when I attended church as a CCD requirement. I looked at this location as a way to join the general population without feeling like I would be in the spotlight or the priest’s direct line of view. I genuflected and entered the pew as though I were a regular and looked around, taking in the scenery. I sketched the church to familiarize myself with the different aspects of the church and altar.

In the time remaining before the start of the mass, I jotted down some notes and observations about those surrounding me. I knew I shouldn’t feel too guilty, as it wasn’t as though I was ignoring the priest or something, but I couldn’t shake the feeling. I thought everyone would suspicious of the woman hunched over a tiny blue notebook, scribbling furiously before church began.

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Transcriptions

Pages 1 and 2 of Notes

Timagehere are 90 rows of pews in the church. Two straight, altar-facing rows line the sides of the tiled center aisle. A baptismal font and a table holding the offering stand halfway up the center aisle. There are two angled rows on either side of the two straight rows. The front of the church is raised three steps of above the rest..

At the center of the raised section of the church is a large, white, marble altar.  Behind this, hanging on the red brick wall is a large crucifix. To right right of the crucifix, if looking at the front of the church, is a statue of Mary and Joseph. To the left of the crucifix is the tabernacle holding the Eucharist. Above the gold tabernacle is a lit candle in a red jar; this candle hangs from the the ceiling on a gold chain. The lectern is diagonally between the altar and the tabernacle. Three large chairs are in a neat row diagonally between the altar and the statue of Mary and Joseph. The center chair is the tallest, and the two smaller chairs frame it.

Page 3 and 4 of Notes

A majority of the attendees seem to be about 50 or older. About four or five families with kids sit around me. There are big gaps in between groups of people, and thereimage seem to be about 20 in my section and the row of pews to my left. There are several rows in front of me that are completely empty thought a few people on the other end of the pew in which I am sitting.

In terms of dress, it seems as though everyone under about age 21 is wearing a hoodie or sweatshirt.

In regard to the families, there are three dads alone with children. The largest family in my immediate vicinity has three teenager daughters.

The left side of the church is more full than the right.

The church balances out a bit as many people arrive after bells signaling the time is now 5:00. The back half of all rows in the church is nearly full. There are still only two or three people sitting in each of the front rows.

The procession of religious leaders in the church is led by two young boys who appear to be in about 3rd or 4th grade, and they are dressed in altar server robes.

At this point in the service, there are two people still kneeling and praying. They both appear to be over 30. One of the women is alone; the other is with what appears to be her husband.

About five minutes into the service, families are still arriving. A family of four sits a few rows in front of me. The woman and the man kneel to pray, but the two children with them do not.

Pages 5 and 6

The few adults that are still entering the church stop to bless themselves with holy water as they enter, but the children who enter walk by the basin without stopping or turning back. The adults then genuflect but the children do not.

imageFather Gormley and Deacon O’Brien say the mass.

The first reading is read by an older parishoner dressed in a suit. He reads quickly and steps down.

The responsorial psalm is sung by one singer. She is accompanied by one guitar player.

Five people in my section of the church have missiles open and follow along with the songs and readings.

Three teenage girls enter together without an older adult after the first reading. Only one of the three kneels and bows her head in prayer before sitting in the pew. The others sit right away.

A father and elementary-school age daughter enter while the gospel is being read.

The priest, who is wearing robes of purple, black, and gold, gives the homily. His voice is booming, and he has stepped down onto the main floor. While he speaks, many parishioners, especially those sitting near the front, look down. They do not look at the priest.

The two teenagers sitting in front of me are not accompanied by adults.

Page 7

After leaving church, I discussed the mass with Mark, who attended with me. He is Baptist and has never attended a Catholic mass. I asked imagehim to share his thoughts on the service and how it compared to the services he was used to.

He said the mass had less scripture reading than his own church services. It also moved quicker. There were less prayers, but he isn’t used to the recitation of specific prayers that the mass involves. He had expected more people to sing than were actually singing.

The space was difference because it was bigger than his own church. His church also doesn’t have a crucifix at the front. They have a plain cross.

In terms of the church attendees, he was surprised by the casual dress. He said no one at his church would come in anything less formal than khakis and a collared shirt.

Scene

The bells above the church toll five times. As the family enters the foyer, they see the procession of altar servers, deacon, and priest moving up the center aisle. The mother pushes her children gently ahead and points to the left of the church as they glance over their shoulder. They turn after crossing through the doorway, skirting past the basin of holy water, and make it to the diagonal column of pews before realizing their parents are a little further behind them.

The parents had stopped to make the sign of the cross over themselves before finding a seat. The daughter seems a bit flustered by this. She’s tapping her foot as she waits for her parents to catch up.

When the parents meet them at the start of the column of pews, the mom points her children in a direction again, using her index finger to indicate an empty pew halfway to the front of the church. The children walk, their foot steps heavy. They sit down as soon as they enter the pew and rather than walking down until they reach the spot in which they’d like to sit, they slide all the way down. The buttons on the back of their jeans making a slight grating sound.

The dad, genuflecting on his right knee, shakes he head side to side, as though he his disappointed in their distracting movement. He scoots into the row, followed by his wife, who drops the cushioned kneeler. Both she and her husband kneel, heads bowed over their folded hands, saying their prayers.

After a minute or two, the couple settles back into the pew alongside their children. The mother looks to her right and gives the kids a look, perhaps to suggest they should be paying closer attention to the reading. The look must have worked because then all four are facing the lectern, and all I can see are the backs of their heads.

Reflections

Returning to church while knowing this blog post would be forthcoming was more troubling than expected. I felt like I had to choose between trying to be aware of my surroundings or listening to the readings, songs, and homily. By the time the mass got to the first reading, I resolved not to write down anything else and instead opted to make jottings if I had any when the service was over. I think this went well enough, and I didn’t feel like I was being rude.

Something I’m really interested in after attending this mass is generational differences. The clothing, actions, and apparent attitudes of the assorted age groups seem to vary drastically. I wonder what opinions of their counterparts these various age brackets would have. I also think this gets back to the tradition aspect of religion and church.

I will also be going to a Baptist church service before the end of the month, so as interesting as I found it to have a discussion about comparisons, I’ll be interested to make some comparisons myself.

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