I’m a convert to Catholicism, but I bring with me many of the traits that marked my life as an evangelical: a deep love of scripture, a desire to evangelize, and the tendency to sit toward the back of the Church. Like many others, I hold that the paradoxical subconscious view that the best seats at any public gathering are up front, unless that public gathering is the Mass.
I’m not sure what makes me do it- maybe it’s a holdover paranoia from some of my Church experiences as a youth, when sitting up front meant an increased possibility that you would be asked to do or say something during the service. Maybe it’s the fear of not being able to escape in case of perceived emergency. Maybe it’s because even though I know the liturgy by heart, I’m afraid I’ll get performance anxiety and forget to kneel when I’m supposed to, and I’ll be the lone person standing up while an entire congregation genuflects behind me. In any case, I know it’s a tendency that I share with many. You come early, you sit in the back, and you punish the latecomers by making them take the walk of shame toward the front of the nave.
Recently, my wife and I had our first son baptized. As is the custom of the Church, that meant we sat up front for Mass. They even put the purple things at the end of the pews to assure that nobody but us sat there, accompanied by our son’s godparents. Of course, since it was a baptism, the order of the liturgy was upside down and backwards, and I was especially self conscious that I would mess something up in front of everyone. To top that, my protestant parents, who could count the number of Masses they’d been to on one hand, were sitting behind me, probably even more nervous than I was, and taking all of their cues from me.
Fortunately, everything went smoothly. More than that, it was perhaps the most beautiful baptism liturgy I’ve ever witnessed, although I admit my biased perspective given my own elevated role in it. I witnessed the same liturgical elements that I usually took in from a distance in an up close and personal capacity. But I witnessed something else in addition to them.
It’s such a small thing; I don’t know why I never thought of it before. When the priest elevates the host, and we respond in one voice with an “amen,” it’s easy to feel like an army of the faithful in one accord. But kneeling there in the front pew, within hearing distance of the Eucharistic ministers, I heard the individual “amens” of each person who went up to receive communion. It was like analyzing a work of pointillism- you don’t get a sense of how many points it took to paint it until you zoom in. In the same way, I got a “zoomed in” perspective on what the “great amen” sounds like when you parse it out.
I think it’s easy to talk about the idea of a universal Church in the abstract. But for most of us, it takes something tangible, an individual example such as a visiting priest from Uganda, to put a face on what we mean by universal. In the same way, as I knelt with a front row perspective on the body of Christ in the form of the Eucharist being distributed to the body of Christ in the form of the Church, I was reminded that a parish consists of persons, each called to give an individual consent to the mystery they receive. If only for one Sunday, I got to hear the salvo of “amens” as each person passed, and I joined my “amen” to theirs in a way that was slightly different from the way that I had joined it to theirs just moments before.
I don’t know if I’ll sit up front again next Sunday; I don’t think that the pew one picks is a necessary indicator of an individual’s piety. All I know is that for one Mass, I got a different perspective, and I’ll never view that line of people shuffling up to the Sacrament in quite the same way again.
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