I’m just old enough to remember when we students at St. Mary’s of the Assumption School in Whittier, California, would start our day at Mass. Each class had an assigned area – 16 in all, as there were double classes of about 50 kids each for each of the 8 grades. Our parents would drop us off at church, and we’d find our class, and join them. Nuns in habits would make sure we genuflected before the Blessed Sacrament, knelt, stood and sat at the appropriate times, and generally behaved ourselves. No talking, no slouching, and kneeling meant kneeling, not that weird z-shaped butt-on-the-pew thing.
I’m a weirdo – I liked it. I liked Mass, I liked the rituals, I liked the songs. I also learned – physically – what reverence meant, and how to show it.
Sadly, this all came crashing down about the time I hit 3th grade. But for a couple glorious years, I got to go to Mass a lot as a kid.
One error I think almost all of us make all the time, at least us older guys and gals who have some idea what reverence is, is to think of reverence as something reserved for Church. On the contrary, here’s a definition from Fr. John Hardon’s Modern Catholic Dictionary via CatholicCulture.org
The virtue that inclines a person to show honor and respect for persons who possess some dignity. There are four forms of reverence, corresponding to four forms of dignity: 1. familial reverence toward one’s parents or those who take the place of parents; 2. civil reverence toward persons holding civil authority; 3. ecclesiastical reverence toward the Pope, bishops, priests, and others in the service of the Church; 4. religious reverence toward any person, place, or object related to God. (Etym. Latin reverentia, awe, respect.)
This is a good definition, but I don’t think it goes quite far enough. For example, there must be an element of reverence in a family not just on the part of children toward parents, but between a husband and wife, and on the part of parents towards their children (and, by extension, all children) and even between siblings. On my best days, I do feel an awe and respect toward my wife. That she (and God Himself!) has somehow recklessly entrusted her life and salvation to *me* in even a tiny degree is awesome; that this woman bore my children deserves way more than respect. And I wept when the nurse handed me my first born – awe and respect hardly describe it, but are essential components of what I experienced and continue to experience as a father.
But what we feel is not the important part – that’s what the good sisters were trying to beat into our thick little skulls at Mass (figuratively speaking – the Dominicans were not violent in my experience). We needed not only to learn to be reverent, but to develop and own a language of reverence. The nuns were determined to teach us. In church, that language consists of gestures, postures and silence – and that’s exactly what was being enforced. The concept may be abstract, but the language in which it is expressed is concrete.
We’re suffering under a double whammy these days. First, few if any Catholics under the age of 50 even know what it would mean to be reverent, even in church. Nope – we talk, wander around, plop ourselves in the pews like we’re at a beach party. At best, there’s a sort of awkwardness, a feeling that maybe I should be doing something.* But even worse, and much more insidiously, we never learn to have reverence for each other. By failing to learn a language of reverence at the source – the awe inspired by the Living God – we have no words for the reverence that beautifies and enriches our lives. Without reverence for each other, much of the family life that is, after all, the image of the Divine Life, becomes desiccated, drab and at risk of death.
The reverence we should practice at Mass is another aspect of the gift of the Eucharist. It is something that is part of our mission that the dismissal send us on: Go! You are sent! Having a language of reverence gives us a way, a form, in which to speak the language of love to our brothers and sisters. Without a language of reverence in word, gesture and posture, life not only becomes crass and dull, it is gradually bled dry of love itself.
So, be reverent at Mass. Don’t make a show of it – kids can always tell – but, from the heart: genuflect, stand, kneel and sit as if you are in the presence of the Lord and Maker of the Universe – because you are. Our bishops here and in San Francisco are trying hard to make this happen, but, boy, is it an uphill battle. The chronological solution may be the only way. But we can do our part.
* One hilarious one – I have a dark sense of humor: at daily Mass, two of the about 25 of us bring up the bread and wine at the offertory. It’s often amazingly awkward: the simple, direct, reverent thing to do is to walk up to the altar as a team, hand the priest the offering, then together, bow once to the altar and priest, and then return to your pews. Simple enough? But because of decades of bad catechesis and worse examples, people are baffled: they wander up more or less together, and wander off semi-randomly after having unloaded the gift they personally were carrying, with no bow or other gesture to punctuate and complete the action. They are afraid, it seems, to perform the obvious reverences, either because they just don’t know how or, sadly, because some Fr. Hippy-dippy has told them that all that kneeling and bowing harshes his mellow and they should just be *natural* or something. So they perform liturgical gestures like a herd of cats…