I have been asked by many non-Catholics just what goes on during a Sunday mass. Being a former Altar Boy, I think I can amply field this question.
To the naked eye and non believers, it appears that Sunday mass is nothing more than a very upscale exercise program. You see a lot of standing, sitting, standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, standing, sitting, and walking. (A regular aerobic exercise) (They should charge for the workout. Get your heart and soul fit with the Lord)
But to the trained observer (Me) and Catholic parishioners, there really is a method to the madness. As always, to understand, we must start at the beginning.
Catholic mass can be broken down into 5 segments.
3) Fire and Brimstone
The Intro, or introduction of the mass, is a very important part. This part determines the length of the mass by what priest is running the show. A Parrish usually has 2-3 priests in the collective and each one has their own style and pace to say mass. Depending on your luck of the draw, you could be in for a 20 minute, 45 minute, or 75 minute or more service. (No matter the length, at this point everyone is standing.)
How the priest begins mass tells you everything you need to know how long the mass will be. The long version introduction begins with the priest, altar boys, deacon, and a member of the congregation carrying the good book. They all gather at the back of the church and make a grand entrance with organs blazing. It’s sort of like a parade, just one you don’t want to go to.
The cross bearer altar boy leads the way, followed closely by the good book carrier, then a short distance behind are the altar boy servers, then the deacon, usually in a beard and robe, and lastly, the priest slowly walking up the center church aisle taking his place on the altar facing the congregation as we belt out one of the classics.
The medium version is less drawn out. There is no book hauler, no deacon, no cross bearer, just two altar boys and the priest. The medium mass has the procession coming from the side entrance, a much shorter distance, hence, a much shorter hymn. The altar boys walk in front of the priest and all three walk immediately up to the altar.
The short version is quicker yet. There is no procession and no hymn. Just a short blast from the organ and as if by magic, the priest and altar boys seem to appear on the altar and the mass begins straight away. (Usually, there is an entrance behind the altar that the priest and altar boys come out from. No trap doors or smoke screens like magicians use)
Each priest would then stay in long, medium, or short mode for the rest of the mass meaning each segment would either be long and drawn out or fly like shit through a goose.
It was obvious the priest saying the short mass was the most popular and best attended services. Parishioners knew that speedy Father Flanigan always did the 10 am service and the church would be packed. Twenty minutes to save your soul on a Sunday morning was far better than the 75 minutes of hell at the 11:30 service. Us Catholics ain’t no dummies. We’re damned to hell, but ain’t no dummies.
However, the church countered with a revised schedule and rotated the priests for different mass times not letting the congregation know in advance who would be saying what mass. (Bastards!)
The intro is over. We now move forward to the second segment of a Catholic mass, The Damnation. (Consisting of standing then sitting several times with a few Amens tossed in.)
The Damnation covers several rituals of the mass. The first being the evil look of the priest upon late comers attempting to sneak into the back of the church after mass had started. Usually these late comers would try to quickly blend in. Some would take the first available pew and stare straight ahead. Some would walk to the back of the church in the dimly lit part and stand. And some would walk in and immediately stop at random, and stay in that exact spot for the duration. Much like a deer being caught in the headlights of a pickup truck full of rednecks hunting for Thanksgiving Day dinner.
The second part of the damnation comes during the prayer and hymn sessions. (During this part, there are some rapid standing and sitting protocols.) You must learn to follow along. Otherwise, you are hopelessly lost. (Like Born Again Christians)
The priest would scan the congregation searching for parishioners not participating. When he spotted one not singing or saying the prayer loud enough, he would zero in on him/her, maintain eye contact until the entire congregation was looking at this poor soul, and then slowly but deliberately, shake his head back and forth in disgust. The unlucky soul would then be the talk of the morning during coffee and dough nuts after mass. You could bet he or she would be singing loud and proud next week damn it.
After Damnation, we move into the third segment, Fire And Brimstone. (Also known as the Gospel reading and sermon) Each Sunday, the priest would take to his pulpit and read aloud from the Gospel. He would pick a passage meant to inspire the congregation to be generous, forgiving, and to love God. (But mostly to be generous, especially during the collection plate pass around) (This segment involved only sitting for fear the priests words would make people pass out in fright and fall down.)
After the Gospel reading, the priest would offer his sermon to us all. (I would describe us as lambs being led to slaughter) The sermon was supposed to touch on the Gospel passage and how we in modern times, abide or deny the teachings of Christ.
Instead, we usually got the priest yelling at the congregation about the pitiful collection from last weeks masses. He would stress that the church needs even more money from us to continue doing God’s work. (Didn’t Jesus give away all his possessions) He would say those of us not giving at least 10% of our income should be ashamed to be Catholic and we better make it up in this week’s collection lest the Lord look poorly upon us. (Apparently, the priest had a hot tip for the football game later that day)
The priest would then shift gears and drop it down into overdrive. His eyes would turn a golden brown and fire would come out of his mouth. (No, not really! But it sounded like it) At this point, the priest would rant and rave about how we, the congregation, need to help the church with more than just money donations. He would preach that there was plenty of work to be done around the school and church. He needed parents to volunteer for coaching, CCD class, hot lunch program, maintenance and repair of the church, rectory, and school. And the priests car.
All this time his hands would be very mobile waving them up and down and back and forth. Reminded me of a pizza maker, the way he would throw the dough in the air and spin it around. (If this priest thing didn’t work out, Cornersburg Pizza shop could certainly use him)
It was now time for the Feast, segment 4, also known as communion time. (This segment involves standing, walking, kneeling, sitting, more standing, kneeling, and finally sitting.)
But first, we had to pay for the feast. The ushers would appear carrying felt covered baskets with very long handles and place it right under your nose and wait for you to open your wallet or purse and dump your cash into the basket. The ushers were very skilled at handling the baskets as never a dollar bill hit the floor. Once the baskets were full, the feast would begin.
Next, the priest and altar boys would huddle together with some secret handshakes and whispered incantations on the altar as gifts were exchanged and promises made. (I will explain all in a future update, I promise) A few bells rings signified that the feast was ready to be served. The ushers quickly came to the front of the church to prevent a stampede to the altar. (The food must really be good.) As the congregation filed up to the altar in perfect straight lines, hands folded, and without talking, it dawned on me why the Catholic nuns made us school kids practice forming lines every day. For the feast!
Finally, the Outro is upon us. (This segment involves sitting, then standing, and finally, walking or running out of the church to your car.)
The Outro is signaled by the lurkers in the back of the church edging towards the exit doors. Beating the traffic is a big part of Catholic mass. With only one road leaving the church, traffic backs up quickly. The priest asks the congregation to please rise, (Please, so now he’s fucking polite, where was the politeness when he told us we were all going to hell for not putting enough money in the collection basket.) (I must confess, once I put an empty envelope in the collection basket and signed someone else’s name to it. I am sure that family got the full frontal fire and brimstone from the happy betting priest)
Once the congregation were standing, the priest would say a quick prayer, make the sign of the cross and announce, “The mass is ended, you may go in peace.” By the time the word peace was uttered, more than half the people were already battling each other in the parking lot.
There you have it. A typical Catholic mass explained. I know after you read this, you will all want to convert to Catholicism. Who would want to miss out on this action.
BTW, this was the 11:30 am mass. Next time, maybe you will get lucky and get the short version.
Short Version: Stand, Amen, sit, stand, Amen, sit, sit, stand, Amen, kneel, stand, form a line, walk, knell, sit, stand, leave. Salvation!
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LURKING ON THE GRASSY KNOLL