At the altar, the priest extends his hands over the bread and wine, then makes the sign of the Cross and leads worshippers into the most sacred moments of the Mass. The prayer is familiar: "To you, therefore, most merciful Father, we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord: that you accept these holy and unblemished sacrifices, which we offer you firstly for your holy catholic Church."
The atmosphere is reverent, or it's supposed to be.
The problem is the people in the pew right behind you who -- just -- will -- not -- stop -- talking.
What are Catholics supposed to do under these circumstances, as they kneel and try to pray? It's hard not to fire frustrated or even angry glances at these people. Is it sinful to chunk a Roman Missal at egregious offenders? How about heaving a loud, dramatic sigh in their general direction?
This is when the voice inside Andrew Sciba's head says: "It's come to this. The true presence of God is on the altar and these dopes aren't paying attention in spite of your repeated attempts to correct them." It's tempting to turn and politely whisper, "Excuse me, would you mind continuing your conversation after Mass?"
At this point, one of three things will happen, noted Sciba, in a satirical commentary entitled "Five Ways to Shush the Church Chatter" at the Truth & Charity website (truthandcharity.net). Scuba teaches theology at Loyola College Preparatory High School in Shreveport, La., but also, as a layman, has served on a parish staff.
There is a slim chance, he noted, that the chatters will feel guilty and fall silent. Then again, some will ignore your request and keep right on talking. Most offenders will simply be quiet for several seconds, then resume right where they left off.
Among the comments after Sciba's piece, one reader confessed that he recently tried this even edgier "shush" remark: "I'm sorry if my praying is disturbing your conversation. Would you prefer that I go outside and pray?" That one didn't work either.
These tense clashes happen in a variety of religious groups, but disruptive chatter is especially distracting in liturgical traditions in which services contain long periods of meditation, reverent hymnody or formal prayers.
While this kind of conflict rarely makes headlines, said Sciba, in a telephone interview, this topic stirs deep emotions for clergy and laypeople. Some are convinced that, in the age of multimedia screens and pop-rock praise bands, the trend toward chatty church informality is getting worse.
Who's to blame? Sciba's essay unleashed a blitz of comments, with some insisting that the worst offenders are elderly worshippers who really should know better. What about ushers who keep shaking hands and talking to the faithful, even as they line up to receive Holy Communion, then return to their pews to pray?
Others blame the young. After all, there are legions of teens, and others, who decline to silence, or even to stop using, their cellphones. In some churches -- those without soundproof "crying rooms" -- church leaders struggle to know how to gracefully handle parents who fail to understand that their tiny children are capable of making sounds resembling car alarms.
Eventually, as arguments ricocheted back and forth among frustrated readers, Sciba was forced to shut down the comments page on this particular article. "Things were getting nasty," he said.
It's clear, explained Sciba, that it does little good -- spiritual or practical -- to confront people about these issues during worship. It may help to post signs at sanctuary entrances instructing worshippers: "Please maintain sacred silence." One church has begun projecting an image of Jesus on screens at the front of the sanctuary, with the caption, "Need to talk? Try Me, I listen."
Clergy and lay leaders will certainly, during pre-service announcements, need to place a stronger emphasis on calls for reverence.
"I once asked an old Jesuit what we can do about people who talk all the time during Mass and he said, 'Nothing. If they knew better, they wouldn't be talking in the first place.' ... I think that we we're just going to have to reeducate a lot of people these days," said Sciba. Then he let out a long sigh.
"I think that many of these people genuinely don't realize that they're doing anything out of sorts."