Many people are curious about what goes on at a Catholic Mass. Some think they know what goes on but have never been to a Mass. Some are hesitant to see for themselves for fear of being evangelized or of standing out from the Catholics present because they do not kneel or stand at the appropriate times. Still others are hesitant to visit because they don’t know what to wear or are not sure whether their race or color will limit access or seating. Mass is for everyone. Come and see.
The Catholic Mass, at its most basic, follows the same format, day in and day out. There is the entrance by Priest, lector and altar servers, followed by the opening prayers. (Those who know their Bible well will be surprised to hear just how much scripture is read and prayed in every Mass.) Then scripture is read: two selections on weekdays and three selections on Sundays and Holy Days. The first one or two readings are taken from the Old Testament, the Epistles or the Acts of the Apostles. The last reading is always from one of the Gospels. This is unvaried. The readings are set for the day and published in a Lectionary that is used worldwide. Therefore, every Mass, everywhere in the world, will have the same readings on the same day. Between the first readings and the last is a Psalm. Readings are followed by a homily by the Priest who tries to tie in the message in all the readings. This is followed by general prayers and the offertory or collection.
Unlike some other Christian denominations, the Priest does not set the scripture readings upon which to base a sermon. He does not pick and choose the passages most amenable to his personality. His topics are set for him and he is expected to teach the meaning of the readings.
One thing you won’t hear in a homily is a diatribe against another religion or religious group. So have no fear of having your faith attacked from the pulpit. Catholic Christians consider all people the children of God and loved equally by God. Since each person is free to choose how they worship God, or not, why should non-Catholics be afraid to experience what Catholicism offers.
The second half of Mass is more intricate in detail but again is taken from Scripture. It is called the Eucharistic prayer and celebrates both the last Supper and Jesus sacrifice on the cross. The rite of communion for the priest is followed by communion for the people. Closing prayers are said and the Priest leaves the sanctuary.
This basic format may or may not be accompanied by music. Different parishes have different customs regarding music. Small parishes that offer one or more Masses may not have enough musical talent in the parish to support more than one choir so may offer music at only one Mass. Other, larger, parishes may have a music ministry for every Mass. As a visitor, you may join in the singing or not, as you choose. Many Catholics do not sing at Mass or give the responses. You would not stand out as being different if you do not sing.
You will notice that there are times when the congregation says or sings prayers, responses to the Priest, or hymns. Don’t be embarrassed because you don’t know what is going on. It takes time to learn the ritual being observed.
There are set times during Mass when Catholics stand, sit and kneel. If you decide to sit throughout Mass, you are free to do so. There are handicapped Catholics who sit during the entire Mass, so you would not stand out.
You may feel uncomfortable arriving before Mass begins as some parishes have official greeters who shake your hand and welcome you. If it is a small parish, the greeters will know certain people by sight. The same people generally attend the same service week in and week out so their faces become familiar. Nevertheless there are many who attend a particular service sporadically, are visitors to the area, or are Catholics who have been away from the church for a long time. No one will know you are not a Catholic and are just curious about the Mass. You will be welcomed just the same.
If you decide to avoid the possibility of greeters before Mass, and decide to arrive late and leave early, you will find others doing the same thing. You will fit right in. If you feel you would be less conspicuous by sitting in the back of the church, you will find many Catholics there with you.
What about proper clothing, gender or racial restrictions? You will find a wide variety, especially in large city parishes. People tend to show up for Mass in an eclectic range of dress, from shorts and halter tops to suit and tie. As a stranger to Catholic Mass, however, it would be more respectful to wear everyday clothes that would be worn to school or work.
In relation to gender and race, all are welcome. None are segregated to certain parts of the church. Men and women sit together to worship, and color or race are simply considered a variation in God’s children. There are no class distinctions at Mass. All God’s children are welcome to worship and sit wherever they wish.
During communion when you see many walking up the aisle to receive communion, you should remain in your seat and observe. You are asked to abstain from receiving communion. You may, however, go up and receive a blessing. Again, you will not stand out as unusual. There are many reasons why people do not receive communion, only one of which is because they are not Catholic.
These are the basics of what you will observe at a Catholic Mass. There will be variations from parish to parish. In North America, Mass is in usually English although Masses can be heard in English, Spanish, French or Latin. If another language is used for a particular Mass, it will be specified.
You may feel uncomfortable attending a Sunday morning Mass, but you have other choices. You may attend a Mass during the week (except perhaps on Mondays which is frequently the Priest’s day off) or you may watch it on television. Being at Mass in person is a richer experience than watching it on TV but if you are hesitant about being physically present, you will find a TV Mass follows the same format.
Consider this an open invitation to come to a Catholic Mass. Come and see.