The National Catholic Review
Holding hands, not holding back
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I have marveled lately at how often we sit next to people at Mass without ever learning much about them. It is clear that we are called to “love our neighbor,” but are we called to take the initiative to know our neighbor? Can we even remember those with whom we have sat at Mass over the last year? We may say “Good morning,” share a greeting or offer a “Peace be with you,” but few of us make a serious effort to know them.

Some of that reluctance comes from a healthy awareness that our presence in church should be prayerful and respectful. We keep a distance, allowing our neighbor time for prayer or quiet reflection. We allow families to tend to themselves. We allow ourselves time for prayer.

Before Mass begins, I pray for my children, my husband, my family, my friends. I pray for God’s grace and continued presence in my life. I pray for those who are suffering in the world. Yet I do not automatically pray for the neighbors sitting next to me. It never crosses my mind.

As we glance at those beside us, we may be failing to see them as God wants us to see them.

At times we may even draw conclusions and render judgment on these fellow worshippers. I have harshly judged the neighbor who tries to fit tardy family members into an already crowded pew, the neighbor who talks incessantly through the Mass, the neighbor whose children are out of control, the loud singer, the terrible singer, the neighbor who is a better singer than I am, the neighbor who might recognize me but never says hello, the neighbor who does not really know me or why my own children are out of control today. I have developed the bad habit of judging the neighbor I do not know.

Just before Mass is about to begin in our parish, the presider asks us to greet each other as friends. This we typically do by extending a smile, a handshake and “Good morning!” Most parishioners comply cheerfully, and their compliance creates a momentary buzz of fellowship that echoes throughout the church. Others appear to go through the motions to fulfill an obligation.

I look forward to this practice, which underscores the concept of coming together as a community to celebrate the Mass. It has even become a bit of a game for me to see how people react to the priest’s request.

Looking around, I think of the people I know who have limited tolerance for such social engagement. For a moment I worry about falling into that category myself but decide that both my fondness for chitchat and my search for real and lasting friendships keep me engaged and a willing participant. Sometimes I find it hard to quell a giggle when I think I have spotted an unwilling participant who, glancing at a wristwatch, already may be calculating the number of minutes this greeting adds to the total Mass time.

It is also a parish tradition for the congregation to hold hands as we pray the Our Father. Many people seem uncomfortable holding the hand of the person on either side of them. My guess is that this is because they do not know them.

Many people hesitate. I have witnessed moments of fear, squirming, panic, cringing, avoidance and even refusal. These are not only the reactions of children, but of adults as well. Some react visibly to their realization that the rite of “hand-holding with a stranger” is imminent, hand-holding with a fellow parishioner, a nonfamily member. Does this put us in danger? Why can some of us accept this practice while others are so uncomfortable with it?

One day during this moment of prayer, I learned a little more about the woman next to me. I learned about her faith and strength, her struggle and courage. I learned about her love, her prayer life and her journey with God. And I learned about her without any conversation between us. I learned through God’s grace, which I felt strongly at the moment.

After holding her hand in prayer, I knew something about her; I knew it with my heart. I learned about her through God’s presence during the Mass. With my eyes looking forward, with my voice focused on the words of the Our Father, with my ears filled with hundreds of voices gathered in prayer as a community, I saw her clearly.

It was not until after she released my hand that I turned and took a good look at her—a really good look. With my eyes I saw a middle-aged woman. Being even more curious, I looked to see who was beside her. Was it someone she knew? It was her husband, afflicted by a neurological condition, perhaps a stroke, or merely by age.

Until then, I had not looked farther down the pew and had failed to notice my neighbor’s neighbor. Earlier, I had failed to notice the woman right beside me—failed to notice the strength, determination and resounding faith of my humble neighbor. I had failed to notice her struggle, her hope and her commitment.

During the Our Father, I held the hand of love manifested in the faith of a woman, a wife, a parishioner, a neighbor. I can only describe the experience as God’s way of teaching me how to pray. I now know it is through the gift of prayer that we learn to love our neighbors and perhaps even to know them.

Are we called to know our neighbor? I believe we are. At the very least, I think we are called to be open to the possibility. I also think we are called to trust that God will guide us in everything we do, that God will reveal his plan for us and his wisdom about those around us. It is only through God that we will learn to greet and to know each other as friends.

Jeannine M. Jacobs lives in Allen, Tex., with her husband and two sons. 

Comments

N & T CHISHOLM | 11/29/2009 - 10:45am

I notice that most folks always sit in the same place so that we always greet the same people, some I know after four years, some I don't and hesitate to ask their names. No one has asked me. I don't know most of my neighbors in the neighborhood in this small town, a similar problem.


The Black churches are the most gregarious, take most time, much more fun!


My problem is the Robots that read the lessons or those who open the proceeding as Mass begins. The Mass is drama! Appropriate dress, looking down at the written text rather than looking up and out and smiling and speaking in a voice with resonance, with training,  some humor and spontaneity is sadly lacking. 


And interrupting the conclusion of Mass with announcements for church suppers etc. really bugs me. That is the time to review briefly why we came and review the message. I need to be reminded because I often wander back into the past at precisely the most important part of Mass-haven't I heard this before?  And so many have hearing aids or need them.

Joe | 11/24/2009 - 9:46pm

Steve,


The "I doubt Jesus" avoids the issue.  Someone changes the liturgy by adding a second "sign of the peace" because it is a good idea even though they don't have the authority to change the Mass.  They then say chill out that there are more important things.


I say that if the liturgy is not important to you or the others then leave it alone so that those of us who think it is important can celebrate it with humility and obedience.  Those of you who don't care about the rules can always set up a social service outside of the Mass.  I would like to go to the Catholic Mass not Steve, Sally, Lynn or Jeanine's mass.


"I doubt Jesus" would be happy with disobedience when it comes to His Church's Liturgy.

Stephen Wilson | 11/24/2009 - 9:24pm

What a beautiful article.  Thank you for the uplifting words, Jeannine.  Holding hands during the Lords Prayer is one of the few symbols of my parish community carried over following a merger.  I find great meaning and comfort in it and have developed a habit of extending my pinky finger as a spiritual connection to those who I love but are not able to be present with me at mass.


And for you Joe, may you always be open to receiving God's peace wherever and whenever it is present .... even if its during the "wrong" part of mass.  I doubt Jesus would get hung up on the rules we have developed for proper demonstration of our gratitude.

Joe | 11/24/2009 - 4:37pm
Lynn,
You say, "Surely we have bigger issues to worry about."

I think that Liturgy is very important! It is the source and summit of my life.
Joe | 11/24/2009 - 4:32pm
Sorry Sally for the my poor spelling, I am Jesuit-trained:)

The Liturgy starts with the procession and hymn.

At my church, not only does the priest ask us to exchange a sign of peace (or whatever else you want to call this) after the procession and hymn but after the sign of the cross.

Why not just ask the people to socialize before and after the Mass in the church hall? Why change the Liturgy without the proper authority, regardless of good intentions.
Lynn Thomas | 11/24/2009 - 12:47pm

Joe,


Who's changing the liturgy?  The author wrote:


"Just before Mass is about to begin in our parish, the presider asks us to greet each other as friends."


Seems to me one important part of that is the opening clause 'just before Mass is about to begin...'.  Hasn't changed the liturgy one tiny bit.  It's something that the presider does BEFORE the liturgy.  In my parish, the presider could do this without entering the church at all, since he wears a wireless microphone whose range extends outside the worship space into the narthex.  Other places might arrange it a bit differently, but is it really that huge a deal?  There are already a number of variations on the beginning of Mass for various occasions.


I'm very hard pressed to take offense at a request to extend a friendly greeting to the people I'm about to worship and participate in a banquet with.  And I'm pretty sure that nothing in the liturgy rules forbid saying hello before we begin.  Surely we have bigger issues to worry about.


 


 

Joe | 11/23/2009 - 5:23pm
Sally,
Do you great people at the beginning of the Mass with the "sign of peace"? Isn't the "sign of peace" how we great our neighbor?

It might make sense to move this to the beginning of Mass. It might make sense to do it twice. I am not contending that this is or is not a great idea. The real question is who has the right to change the Catholic Liturgy? If you don't have the right to change the Catholic Liturgy but you do change it then would this properly be called disobedience? Is it being picky to object to those who change the Catholic Liturgy without proper authority or is it picky to be the one to change it because you think you know better? How far should this go? Maybe we should have little tables in the Church so that people can sit at table together and socialize prior to and during Masss? That sounds like a good idea also.
Susan Francesconi | 11/23/2009 - 12:56pm
Joe, the "sign of peace" is not being moved to the beginning of Mass. If it is used, the sign of peace always follows the Eucharistic prayer. As for greeting one another at the start of Mass, it is common and helps us to recall that we are a COMMUNITY. Thank you Jeannine for your reflection on what it means to be Christ to one another.
Joe | 11/20/2009 - 5:21pm
I think that the people who appear uncomfortable are actually in dismay over the "sign of peace" being moved to the beginning of mass and then repeated at the appropriate time after the "Our Father". They are in dismay at their parish leadership who have decided that they know better than their bishops. In fact they may know better (I personally would prefer the sign of peace at the beginning of Mass) but they should have the humility to humble themselves and follow the rules.

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