spiritual disciplines

To SHUSH or not to SHUSH in church

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."

A short test for Lent 2006

Now that Ash Wednesday has passed, the world's 1 billion or more Roman Catholics have entered the season of Lent. It's time for a short test.

During this holy season of penitence and reflection, America's 62 million Catholics are required to:

(a) Go to confession.

(b) Abstain from meat and fast by eating only one full meal on Fridays.

(c) Pray and meditate on biblical accounts of the suffering and death of Jesus, including attending weekly Stations of the Cross rites or an extra Mass.

(d) Increase their efforts to help the needy through volunteer work and donations.

(e) Make a unique personal sacrifice, such as giving up sweets, coffee, soap operas or SportsCenter on ESPN.

(e) All of the above or some combination of the above, depending on the conscience of the individual Catholic.

(f) None of the above.

Yes, this is a trick question and the key is the phrase "required to."

Modern Catholic leaders have steered away from dogmatic pronouncements about practical details in the spiritual lives of the faithful. The end result is that Catholics are gently encouraged to practice many spiritual disciplines during the Lenten season, including all of the above and more. However, they are required to do few things in particular and millions of Catholics ignore those regulations, as well.

"What is the reality? The reality is that most Catholics do not think much about the meaning of Lent," said Father William H. Stetson, director of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., only a few blocks from the White House. "Most Catholics have little or no idea what they're supposed to be doing during this season, although they all want to go get ashes on their foreheads on Ash Wednesday."

Lenten traditions have changed dramatically through the centuries, with some form of pre-Easter fast beginning in the early church. This evolved into a penitential season of 40 days, a number rich in biblical symbolism-- including the 40 days of prayer and fasting that Jesus spent in the wilderness.

For centuries, Roman Catholics observed a strict fast in which they ate only one meal a day, with no meat or fish allowed. Over time, regulations were softened to allow small amounts of food at two other times during the day.

Today, Catholics are asked to observe the strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the beginning of Lent and Good Friday at the end. They are urged to avoid meat on Fridays in Lent, but the U.S. Catholic bishops now allow other acts of penance to substitute for this.

These Lenten regulations are usually published in parish newsletters and explained by priests during services.

According to canon law, noted Stetson, Catholics are supposed to take Holy Communion at least once a year, a tradition that millions of church members have grown up hearing described as their "Easter duty." The assumption is that this would require Catholics to go to confession during Lent before fulfilling that duty.

However, few priests and bishops would assume that to be true in American pews today. In the mid-1980s, a University of Notre Dame study found that 26 percent of active Catholics never go to confession at all and another 35 percent may go once a year. No one believes that those numbers are rising.

This points to a problem, said Stetson, a problem larger than any confusion that exists about the myriad layers of church laws, regulations and traditions that govern the holy season of Lent in America and the rest of the Catholic world.

The biggest problem, he said, is that so many Catholics no longer think of themselves as sinners.

"There are all kinds of actions that the church teaches are seriously sinful that the typical modern Catholic no longer believes are seriously sinful," said Stetson, who, as a 75-year-old priest, has seen many changes sweep through the Church of Rome. "Therefore, these typical Catholics walk up to the altar week after week to receive Communion without a single thought entering their minds about repentance or confession or anything like that.

"So you have to take that into account when you talk about Lent. In a penitential season you are supposed to feel real sorrow for your sins, which can be hard to do if you really do not think that you're sinning."