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Mind your manners, Massgoers: from pre-liturgy gabbing to bare midriffs to Cheerios strewn all over the floor, some of our fellow worshipers could take a lesson from Emily Post.

"WHAT'S THE BUZZ?" MAY BE A FINE AND feisty 21st-century greeting, but it's also a question you can often hear old-time Catholics--those who were trained in proper church etiquette in ancient days by black-habited nuns--whisper to each other as they enter church on Sunday morning.

"That buzz"--and you don't have to listen closely to identify it--is the sound of unrestrained conversation among already-seated churchgoers as they wait for Mass to begin. It usually stops or is drowned out by the organ as soon as the procession starts. But that's not the way it used to be when folks waited, often on their knees, in respectful silence for the beginning of the Holy Sacrifice. That buzz, that new buzz, is annoying.

We seem to have lost the sense of solemnity, the holy hush of anticipation that used to wash quietly through the church. We were supposed to be quietly talking to God then, weren't we? Shouldn't we still be doing that?

Some outspoken grandparent-aged critics blame it on the loss of Latin, for starters. But I think the change is more likely a sign of the unconscious drift into a more casual age that seems to be the mode of society overall.

We haven't yet learned, however, that casual is not synonymous with careless, which is the direction in which many folks have turned in our post-Emily Post world.

It is certainly more comfortable not to have to be starch-stiff just because everybody is supposed to dress up on Sundays. You rarely even see an Easter Parade anymore on that Sunday, let alone buy a special flower-brimmed bonnet to be worn to church for the first time along with a special Easter outfit.

But deep down, in the lingering accepted custom, dressing up just a bit for churchgoing on any Sunday is basically a matter of respect. Those of us who belong to the old fogey faction believe that and are sometimes shocked and a tad offended to see Massgoers looking too ready for the beach or a walk in the woods, even in a downtown parish. That currently fashionable bare-skin gap between blouse and jeans really doesn't seem respectfully proper for church, not even on early grade-schoolers or teenagers.

Nor, alas, does the miniskirt. It seems at least sensible that anyone wearing a mini should really decline the assignment to carry up the offertory gifts. That has to be a distraction, at least for the middle-aislers. And some prudish parish folks will talk about it.

If I have heard it once, I have heard it said dozens of times: The reason there are no "official" comments on proper dress made from the altar or featured in the church bulletin is that it is better to have people attend, no matter how inappropriately garbed, than not be in church at all.

"The Lord doesn't care what you wear" is often said in defense of scruffiness or unsuitability. But you can note in reading the gospels that Jesus was always cognizant of social customs and appropriate dress and did not discount such rules as in, for instance, the parable of the guest without a wedding garment (Matt. 22:11).

IT IS NOW OFTEN REQUESTED IN CHURCH THAT CELL PHONES, pagers, and video games be turned off when Mass is about to begin, which is perfectly reasonable. There are also some Sundays when "It is time to turn off the children now, too" could be a welcome addition to the silence suggestions.

There is nothing sweeter and more moving than the sight of a young family praying together. "Let the little children come to me," (Mark 10:14) is a profound admonition from Jesus himself. But few of us, except for beamingly clueless (and deaf?) parents, believe that unrestrained screaming or brotherly punch-outs should be a part of the eucharistic ceremony.

Kids really do need a bit of training for church attendance. It is difficult to keep your attention focused on the altar when there is a loudly discordant, unmuffled baby babbling right in your ear or when someone small, perky, and unsupervised is seated on a kneeler happily kicking the soles of your shoes as you kneel in the pew ahead.

It can be very distracting to observe a parent playing tic-tac-toe or some ball-bouncing game with a child in a pew nearby. Doing a complete rebraiding of a 10-year-old's elbow-length tresses or letting a preteen examine the contents of her mother's purse, lipstick by lipstick, is annoying for anyone within visual range. Letting an eager child practice reading aloud from just any book during any part of the Mass is an annoyance of some magnitude.

And why is a cutesy kiddie book on toilet training suitable for church? There are plenty of religiously themed children's books available. In fact, I have sometimes wondered why a collection of such helps for small congregants isn't made available in cry rooms, if not in regular pews.


But in a special way the church should feel like home. The parish church is home on the bridge between time and eternity. And who hasn't at least once heard a teenager explain that he or she is doing something irritating because at home you should be able to "be yourself"?

Then, have you ever seen someone applying hand lotion during Mass? Or giving a back rub? Fascinating and eye-popping to be sure, but out of sync with time and place. Gum chewing may be quiet, but it's ugly to see, especially when done open-mouthed. It's fine, and even wise, to bring a soothing small bottle of milk or juice for a small restless person. But serving candy or crackly cereal snacks is a bit over the line.

And it would be better if folks wrote their collection checks before arriving at church. I must look like an easy lender, but I don't always have a pen handy with me for the last-minute giver to borrow. And while not all homilies are fantastic, it really must be disconcerting for a priest to see congregants sitting right there in an up-front pew reading the bulletin while he preaches.

Wouldn't it be interesting if some Sunday morning all parishioners were asked to jot down and drop in the collection baskets, or some designated receptacle, just one way in which each feels a lack of respect is being displayed in church? Then some of us--all of us--might learn a lot.

Advance copies of Sounding Board are mailed to a sample of U.S. CATHOLIC subscribers. Their answers to questions on the topic of this Sounding Board article and a representative selection of their comments follow in Feedback.

MARY MARGARET CARBERRY, a freelance essayist and poet living in a Chicago suburb.
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Title Annotation:sounding board
Author:Carberry, Mary Margaret
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2005
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