On Sunday morning I went to my first Mass. I decided to go to St. Mark’s, a newer parish in the area. (Ok, I really chose it because Mass started at 11 instead of 10:30 – don’t judge me!)
I was initially overwhelmed with the size of the building. It is pretty massive, and doesn’t really look anything like I expected. Somehow I expected it to be more like the cathedrals that I visited in Europe. From the outside, it was nothing like them.
But inside was a different story. I entered the Narthex (just a fancy word for church lobby) and followed the stream of people through wooden doors. There were two vessels of Holy Water (Google tells me these are called stoups) and everyone dipped their fingers in the water. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I sort of quickly touched the surface of the water. But I hadn’t considered what to do next. I sort of flicked the water off my fingers as discreetly as possible as I walked down the aisle looking for an empty pew. Of course, I managed to get Holy Water all over my church bulletin and purse. I felt completely conspicuous, disrespectful, and ignorant…not exactly how I wanted to start out my first Mass.
I reached a pew with a few open seats and sat down. Then I realized that everyone was bowing and crossing themselves before being seated. I hoped I wasn’t being disrespectful by not doing so. I didn’t realize that was part of the protocol.
Two faux pas in less than two minutes, I was on a roll.
I started browsing through the bulletin. This was a serious bulletin – eight pages long, and included a page and half of ads. Yes, there was actual advertisements in the bulletin; ads for jewelry, liquor stores, lawn care, and much more. I relied so heavily on the bulletin in the Episcopal Church; it was my cheat sheet for the service. But the bulletin at the Catholic Church was overwhelming. There was a tiny section that detailed the liturgy for the weekend, and I didn’t actually see it until the last half of the service. I was too distracted reading everything else in those pages.
When the service began, I got a chance to really look at the sanctuary. It was cavernous, with white walls and stained glass. It actually reminded me a bit more of the Orthodox churches in Europe than Roman Catholic. The priest and clergy were on a raised platform in the center of the room. The choir was situated behind the stage, and pews filled up the rest of the room. I was sitting in the center section, but there was also a left and right section, with a crying room at each corner. (Crying rooms are enclosed areas that parents often sit with their screaming and crying children. These rooms didn’t seem too sound proof, as I could still hear some of the ear-piercing shrieks of one of the little boys.)
I thought I would be more prepared for Mass after my month in the Episcopal Church, but I was wrong. The wording of the liturgy was similar enough to trick me into being confident in my replies, but different enough that my reply was very wrong. I didn’t want to be a distraction to anyone, so I stopped trying to participate and just listened and followed those around me. When they kneeled, I kneeled. When they stood, I stood.
Then it was time for Communion. I’m rather uneducated when it comes to Catholicism, but I do know that non-Catholics are not allowed to participate in Communion. So I sat quietly in the pew as others pushed past me to the aisle. Because of the massive size of this church, there were many lines for the bread and the wine. In what looked like well orchestrated chaos, people formed lines in front of the center area to receive their bread. Then they moved to the back of the church to receive the wine. Even if I was allowed to take Communion, I would have been too afraid to get up and try to figure out where to go.
Before I knew it, the service was over. I gathered up my things, but the older lady next to me stopped me. She kindly asked if I was a visitor, and I explained it was my first time at Mass. We talked about this journey I’m on, and she was very encouraging.
As I walked out of the service, I avoided the stoups of holy water. Everyone was dipping their fingers in again, and I was not going to make that mistake twice. I stopped in the Narthex to pick up some pamphlets about Catholicism before heading out to the parking lot.
I think I breathed a sigh of relief when I was behind the wheel. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt like such an outsider at a church. It wasn’t the fault of anyone around me. I don’t think anyone but the kind old lady noticed how lost and confused I was. I found myself longing for the Book of Common Prayer. It may be hard to juggle with the hymnal, but at least I knew exactly what to expect with it.
I will be going back next week, and hopefully I will be more prepared this time. I will keep my hands out of the Holy Water and I will try to keep up with liturgy. And I will definitely sit in a different area of the sanctuary; one that isn’t right next to a crying room.