Example matters, and not just to appease and please the cranks
Friends of mine, who are practising Catholics have been scratching their heads and saying that they are reluctant to attend ‘Traddy Mass’ or the Latin Mass, because they say that whenever they go, they meet people who want to criticise them for things they do – or don’t do at Mass.
There is casual, anecdotal truth to this. Once, I took my friend Chiara to a Latin Mass and before Mass, as she leafed through the red missal a man stuck his head between us and grumbled to her, ‘you can’t behave like a Modernist, not knowing what to do at Mass!’ It annoyed him that we seemed unfamiliar with the Mass.
Recently, at a very crowded Mass in central London, I found myself a tiny place to sit at the back and after the priest had come onto the altar, a woman in front of me had turned around and was trying to scold me because she didn’t think that I had knelt down quickly enough. She was pointing at me and causing me some embarrassment.
My brain felt a twinge of temptation to narrow my eyes, fence my brow and growl, ‘mind your own business’. But she had diverted her attention from the Mass to criticise me, and as I didn’t approve of what she did, it didn’t seem logical to do the same, take my eyes off the Mass, in order to upbraid her. But at that very moment, a young family came in, and a girl of about seven squeezed next to me. Her mum’s hands were full with some giddy, wriggly baby brothers. And the little girl seemed a bit lost and not accustomed to a Tridentine Mass. I invited her to share my missal, but she was fascinated at the proceedings and wanted to study the actions of the congregation and the priest. It was teeming with people, so it was difficult for her to see the priest at times, so whenever she was uncertain what to do, she would look at me.
When I stood for the Gospel, she stood for the Gospel. At one point, I rolled my shoulders, unconsciously, out of habit, and a split second later, I saw the little girl roll her shoulders and join her hands in the exact same tight way as mine. She also checked to see if the priest was rolling his shoulders and then looked at my shoulders again. After the Consecration, when I dropped my head, she dropped her chin into her chest, and turned her eyes up, to check if my head was still dropped. When I lifted my head, she lifted hers. During the last Gospel, I bent my knee at the words, ‘Et Homo factus est’, and a second later, she did the same.
During the prayers after Mass, without thinking, I rolled my shoulders again, and quick as she could, she rolled her shoulders.
It struck me that the attentive little girl was intuitively trying to be as reverent as she could, but not being accustomed to the Mass, she had to follow whichever example was nearest to her, even one as poor as mine.
At the start, had I succumbed to the temptation to scold the woman who was not happy with my kneeling posture, then I could have seemed like an angry adult and my cross expression could have alienated the little girl who slid into the place next to me. (I’m sure, in time, she’ll learn that shoulder-rolling is not part of assisting at Mass!)