Dear regular Mass-goers: The seats at the end of the pew aren’t for you

Photo by Stefan Kunze on Unsplash

My work took me away from home a lot last fall, and so I was at a different Catholic parish every weekend. All the same Catholic Mass—and, depressingly, the same experience of being the unwelcomed stranger in a strangely familiar land.

Many of the parishes had a greeter smiling at the front door with a bulletin in hand. There was often an invitation from the pulpit for all visitors to stand and be welcomed. At one parish, I even received a shiny little gift bag with a ballpoint pen and a coffee cup, both bearing the name of the parish.

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That was nice. I was being officially welcomed.

But it was not working. Why? I think it is because I had to climb over people to get into a pew. Seriously. This happened time and again and in churches that were empty except for the ends of the pews firmly held against all newcomers.

I was raised Catholic. I know the strategy. The first-class seats are at the end of the pew.

I was raised Catholic. I know the strategy. The first-class seats are at the end of the pew. To create a warm and inviting parish, it is apparently much easier to put a welcome blurb in the bulletin or even to station greeters at the front of the church than for parishioners to sit in the middle of an empty pew.

The more parishes I attended, the more people I had to crawl over, the more time I had to think: What scares us about sitting in the center? The wooden pew is just as hard, the view is much the same and we won’t suddenly hear an improvement in the music by sitting on the aisle. Perhaps it is because we know we should be at Mass but are unwilling to really commit. We want to be close to an exit so we can make a quick getaway. So we sit with one foot in the pew and the other in the parking lot.

Do we forget that we are at Mass because it is here the community gathers? It is here that we become the people of God, drawn to each other by the work of the Spirit. And yet we try to sit where we can have as little contact with other people as possible—choosing our seats at Mass as we would on a cramped trans-Atlantic flight with unpleasant strangers.

We want to be close to an exit so we can make a quick getaway. So we sit with one foot in the pew and the other in the parking lot.

We do this without thinking about it, on a level that remains hidden to us but is obvious to newcomers. We bemoan our empty churches and then act as though no one is expected to join us in our empty pew. But here is the deal: The end spots on a pew are for those who arrive after us.

Or do we think we are the last ones who will sit in these pews at all? That we are the final generation of faithful churchgoing Catholics? Thus we don’t need to worry about moving toward the middle because the pew will be largely empty anyway.

Every weekend, in every Catholic Church in the United States, new people arrive hungry for a community to call home. Is this parish for them? Is this pew for them? They come from other denominations, from other faiths and from other parishes. If they cannot find a place to sit, they will not be back. And we will never have a chance to speak the saving Word to them, because, in spite of the official welcome, they understood this was not going to be their church. It was already taken by the guardians at the end of the pew.

The end spots on a pew are for those who arrive after us.

This is hard on the newcomers, but it is equally damaging to the oldtimers, the invested, the parishioners. We can go to Mass weekend after weekend, and every weekend we get just a little bit less hopeful. We begin to see the empty pews as abandoned real estate rather than fresh new lots, ready for families to move into our neighborhood.

Now, this might not apply to families with kids. But if we singles and couples chose to scoot over and occupy the middle we would not only create space for the newcomers but we could get into the habit of hope again in our church. We could hold a space open for all our friends and family who wander in lost and alone on a Sunday morning. And we would begin to rub elbows with the Sunday regulars from the other end of the pew as well.

Then, imagine if we all began to move toward the middle in the rest of our lives—in our choice of media, in our ideological camps. Can you imagine moving to the middle? Or is any movement toward the center seen as a betrayal? Are we selfish enough to continue the move apart when what we need desperately is to come together?

Can you imagine arriving at Mass and choosing to sit in the exact middle of a pew? If you sit there, you boldly state that you are expecting more people to join you. There is room on your right; there is room on your left. You sit in the middle because you are welcoming. You are ready to make that first offer to strangers, the offer of space, of community. You help them begin a first step toward a life with Christ where you are St. Paul, John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary rolled into one: an on-fire, evangelizing Catholic.

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Reyanna Rice
9 months 3 weeks ago

Sorry, padre, but you neglected to realize that those who are older don’t find it easy getting in and out of those pews to go up to Communion. Also some don’t have the most faithful of bladders either...I’m thinking of a friend.... You should have noticed that there are a lot of grey heads in those congregations! So I don’t think it’s a matter of welcome at all...

Olive McVeigh
9 months 3 weeks ago

In our church we have designated areas for people with disabilities or concerns where Eucharistic Ministers bring Communion to those who have difficulties with mobility. But I don’t think that is the issue the author is addressing. I agree. It’s offputting when you come in and each pew has someone clinging to the end of an empty pew. It is not welcoming.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

The way you word your words....People Clinging to the end of the pew......really? clinging....I have never been put off by this and have never thought it to be an issue....sounds more like attacking people who go to church every week and telling them now they cannot and should not sit at the end of the pew....Why are we judging people who as others have said....may have to go to the bathroom alot....maybe elderly and who knows what else......but to assume We want to be close to an exit so we can make a quick getaway, is just wrong in my opinion....we are alienating people by even having this discussion.......

Ricardo Rubio
8 months 3 weeks ago

Most older generation parishioners do not want to be exiled to designated seating areas, even if they need partial assistance. My Grandfather is one of those. He likes to sit in his spot, even with the necessity of a cane, and some assistance in being escorted to the pew.

Jeanne Asdourian
9 months 3 weeks ago

I used to think the same thing! It irked me. But, I find that there are simple but valid reasons for sitting at the end of the pew. As my husband and I get older, we find that we (well, really, he) needs the restroom more often and it's very uncomfortable to have to climb over people more than twice during Mass to use the facilities. So, we are those people who sit at the end. Also, when our kids were little, we sat toward the end for a quick "crying baby escape" so other worshippers could concentrate on the Mass. And, lastly, if you are participating in any way during the Mass (usher, taking up the gifts, etc.) it does make it simpler to do rather than climb over your neighbor. That said, there is a LOT of space in the middle of pews that needs filling.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

and to state is is not welcoming.....is just so wrong.....all are welcome in church....Jesus welcomes everyone.....and does not care where you sit as long as you are there...

Carol Goodson
9 months 3 weeks ago

Yes, I admit I like to sit at the end of a pew. It's a claustrophobia thing: I always get an aisle seat on planes too--I need some empty space on at least one side of me. But I do not make people climb over me... I try to be aware of people coming from behind next to me, and as soon as I pick up that they want to enter that pew, I stand up and move out into the aisle to let them in, welcoming them with a warm smile and usually a friendly hand on the shoulder at the same time. So don't hate me.

Ellen B
9 months 3 weeks ago

No, people have real reasons for arriving early & taking those seats - such as difficulty in navigating the kneelers at communion time or just having a little more room because those in the center are inevitably squished. If people want to sit on the aisle, show some respect and show up on time or early.

Stanley Kopacz
9 months 3 weeks ago

My parish acquired some contiguous real estate and turned a small portion of it into parking area. There are long parallel lines. The idea is that you pull to the front, to the previously parked car, until the lines are filled. At the end of mass, the first ones in drive out leaving the cars behind free to leave. So what actually happens? Early cars fill in the front of the rows as is proper. But then these privileged characters fill the very back ends of the rows so they have instant egress after mass while blocking access to the inner spots. I thought, is this a case of Catholic end of the pew syndrome applied to parking? It's enough to make you check out other Christian denominations or even Shintoism.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

Catholic end of the pew syndrome....IT's enough to make you check out other Christian denominations or ever Shintosim....are you really serious? All are welcome in CHurch no matter where they sit....Jesus welcomes everyone.....we are there to hear the word of God and to share and receive the real true presence of Jesus Christ in true body and blood.....

Stanley Kopacz
9 months 2 weeks ago

No. I wasn't really serious. But, apparently, the operation you had to remove your sense of humor was a total success.

Vincent Gaglione
9 months 3 weeks ago

Great article with great insights!

I am one of those guys who chooses to sit in the middle of pews. Every Sunday I sit in the same pew and I crawl over the same lady who always is there before me and sits at the end of the pew. It’s an early Mass and it is amazing to see how the ends of pews fill up before anywhere else in them! Age is not the issue!

I have always complained that the parish “Ministers of Hospitality” do nothing but take up collections. They never say hello to the regulars; they never greet newcomers; they never identify themselves! They would be better off called the Ministers of Strongarming! Anonymity and distance is the trademark of Catholics at Mass it seems.

Yesterday I attended Ash Wednesday Mass at a church other than my regular parish. The ends of the pews were mostly filled. I chose to sit in a pew where the end was empty but I went to my place further in. A lady subsequently arrived to plant herself at the end of the pew and acknowledge with a nod to me that she realized that I had left the end spot available. And then, what bothers me most about the anonymity and unfriendliness of Catholics, happened at the Sign of Peace. How reluctant most people were to shake my hand! The lady at the end of the pew, a space that I essentially left for her, hesitated to shake my hand! The lady at the end of the pew in the pew behind me did the same. People who would normally shake anyone’s hand outside the church somehow recoil from doing so in church. And don’t “hand” me the “I don’t want to spread flu germs” excuse. Then do what I do when I have a cold, I politely say that I have a cold and then say, “The peace of Christ.”

The social aspect of Mass attendance is mostly forgotten by clergy and laity alike. One would never know that we are all interrelated parts of the same Body! Sad!

Christopher Lochner
9 months 3 weeks ago

Agreed. It's a bad flu season so I do not shake hands. (But, really, shaking hands, generally, is one of the best ways of transmitting illness we've ever devised.) This does not mean a lack of acknowledgement is OK at all. This is what drives people away, the implication of *I'm here* and *you're not*. Myself, I cross my arms as if not to receive Communion, bow towards them, and offer the prayer of Peace. Sometimes I use the fist bump of peace. Kids and some adults smile so- good. Canon Lawyers may now check in! Oof.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

So you sit in the middle.....that is wonderful of you.....and reading your post it seems to me you are judging people.....hesitate to shake your hand...once again there may be a reason why......but the first thing that comes to your mind is unfriendly....Really? and you left the end of the pew space for her and she did not shake your hand....Not everyone is like YOU.....remember that.......you don't know what battle she is fighting inside herself......If you listen to yourself you are expecting people to be like you and to do like you do.....when we are in church we should not be bothered by any of this.......The mass is about Jesus....it is not a social hall....

Mike Theman
9 months 3 weeks ago

Fun article, Father. I don't agree with your assessment, but I love the fact that you called attention to this Catholic practice and to hear that it occurs all over.

Other comments have pointed out some of the many reasons for end sitting. I think most of the end sitters are people who come to church alone and find an empty pew. It feels strange to be sitting in the middle of a pew alone (I've done it): vulnerable, exposed, and, ironically, like you're selfishly dividing the pew, preventing a family from being able to use the pew.

Now, what bugs me are the people who sit on the end who act aggravated when you decide to enter the pew. Geez, if you're going to sit on the end and block the entrance, at least be nice when someone wants to enter. When I sit on the end, I try to make eye contact for seat-searchers, letting them know that they're welcome to join me in the pew.

Kevin Murray
9 months 3 weeks ago

Bingo - when you sit at the end of the pew, you should become the official "Pew greeter" with the responsibility to welcome all who need to sit in the center, and definitely to greet them with the peace of Christ!

Susan Olmsted
9 months 3 weeks ago

👍

Charles Monsen
9 months 3 weeks ago

A few years ago friends of my wife and I had friends visited us here in Houston. The couple were born again Christians, and the only thing they wanted to do here was to go to service at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.

For those un-aware Lakewood Church occupies a former professional basketball arena. As we entered the arena we were welcomed by a small army of welcomers. They were full of smiles and dripping in southern hospitality. They asked, and when we told them it was our first time there, they ushered us to a few seats - right up in front of the stage, saved for new comers. There were also some regulars planted in these seats to help with our welcome and to share their fellowship.

As the service began, there was a band and a choir and a male and female lead singers that where as talented and professional as you could find on any stage. The sermons from Joel, and his wife and a few others were incredibly well prepared, professionally delivered and very motivational.

There was tons of involvement from the congregations and lots of cheering and clapping.

They had everything !!!

Well except a few things. It was in no way the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, There was no Priest acting In Persona Christi consecrating bread and wine, There was no real presence of Jesus Christ available to me in the Eucharist.

Mr. Osteen put on a great show - I see absolutely no reason to go back.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

exactly....It was in no way the re-presentation of the sacrifice of Calvary, There was no Priest acting In Persona Christi consecrating bread and wine, There was no real presence of Jesus Christ available to me in the Eucharist.
That is what is important.......we have lost that somewhere down the road.....maybe worrying too much about our neighbor sitting at the end of the pew and or shaking our hand......How about we pray for each other in the presence of Jesus Christ.....

Patricia Belles
9 months 3 weeks ago

Father Jack - great topic! You know how sometimes you hear one little thing that makes you stop and think, and it stays with you? We vacation in a lovely place at the New Jersey shore. Each week in the announcements at our Franciscan parish there, a simple piece is included by a staff member. A few years ago, one of our sisters wrote a reflection on welcoming - quite apropos in the Summer because there are different families joining our worship each weekend. Her simple suggestion was to NOT sit at the end of the pew. The simple gesture of moving towards the center provides a visual welcome to all. That struck me as such a simple and loving way to make sure 'All Are Welcome'! I remember it every time I go to church. Yes, of course there are families with young kids who need an easy exit, and aging bladders as well. And yes, some of us are claustrophobic...So let's concentrate on saving the end seats for those who really need them. I particularly like your closing point - it might be helpful to make a shift towards the middle in other aspects of our lives as well. God Bless.

Keith Kurak
9 months 3 weeks ago

I don’t think Father said everybody always has to sit in the middle of the space is available. For the people who have valid reasons, fine. But most really don’t. And people do this everywhere. I was at a tech conference recently where dozens of people sat on the floor (violating fire codes, mind you) while even more seats in the middle of rows went unused. No children there and most were 20-30-something’s.

Carol Cox
9 months 3 weeks ago

Father, I sit at the end of the pew. There are two pews in our church that have a seat with no kneeler. I am almost 69 years old and I am unable to kneel. This seat fits my needs. I sit in this seat when I attend Mass with my CCD kids.

Helen Reilly
9 months 3 weeks ago

My husband is handicapped. He has an artificial leg, and his other leg is also badly damaged. He was crushed between our car and a car that veered off the road and hit him, almost 40 years ago. He needs room for his legs, and has trouble walking at all. This priest is a judgmental fool. How does he know why people sit on the end? In any case, that's not what makes people not come. For decades, the Church has not taught children - or adults for that matter - anything of substance that would make them understand why we come to church. When I taught in a Catholic school in New York many years ago, we were doing a page in a workbook in religion class one day. One of the children raised his hand and said he couldn't figure out the answers to the fill-ins. (There was a list of answers at the bottom of the page to choose form.) I had to look at the answer key to get the answers, because just about any answer would have fit in any blank - that's how meaningless that garbage was. Then of course, there's the priest scandal - which is still not being properly handled. That criminal, Cardinal Law, was given a position of honor in a church in Rome when he fled Boston to avoid prosecution for covering up for priests in the sex abuse scandal.

John Walton
9 months 3 weeks ago

You're a celibate priest.!!! My wife and I got 3 little male-urchins, the squirmy variety, to mass on time, or earlier, for a decade and a half and never had to worry about crawling over some nonogenarian! Crybaby. Try setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier.

Burt Fleming
9 months 3 weeks ago

With respect, new people or visitors should show up early before many of the regulars show up. No need to climb over people, no need to stumble. When my wife and I travel we do this and have never had a problem. So many reasons parishioners choose the end, some do the readings, some serve as extraordinary ministers of holy communion, some are ushers, some being up the gifts. And yes, some are older people that may need a quick exit to the bathroom, some sit on the end to comfort a crying baby so as not to disturb everyone. Some may also be asked to leave a bit early if breakfast or lunch is being served or if merchandise is being sold by a visiting group. The first may be last, but not necessarily when finding a pew space on the end. Arrive early if you have a personal preference. Peace.

Audrey Weiss
9 months 3 weeks ago

Sometimes, a person walks in to the Church with trepidation, for the first time in 20 years, after the loss of a loved one etc and they are coming late because it was difficult to open the doors and walk inside. Be merciful always, especially to those new people at church who arrive late. You never know what they are carrying with them.

Lee Lusardi
9 months 3 weeks ago

Many good points here, but there’s another element. Think about the design of many churches. For me, sitting at the end of a pew is about having a clear line of sight to the altar, rather than the back of someone’s head.

Adrian Johnson
9 months 2 weeks ago

--ESPECIALLY if you're short !

Lynette Shields
9 months 3 weeks ago

Finally someone has spoken up about one of my pet peeves observed in my past three parishes. I have always moved in to the middle for all the reasons Father Jack has mentioned. My observation is that many of those anchored at the end of the pew leave Mass early. The Eucharistic Minister who sits at the end always tells the person who steps over her why she chooses the end seat. I don’t think those who come early and sit at the end realize how unwelcoming it can be to others.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

This is your pet peeve when you go to Mass ..... I shake my head in disbelief all that I am reading here....why are we so bothered by our neighbor? Do people really feel unwelcome because someone is sitting at the end of the pew? Why are we watching people leave mass early? Why is it any of our concern? We all should be concerned with the reason we are there.....and be happy to be able to share with each other the true presence of Jesus Christ himself....Do you think that Jesus is bothered by where we all choose to sit? He is the only one who truly knows our hearts without judging.....

Adrian Johnson
9 months 2 weeks ago

This reminds me of two parishioners I knew well but who did not know each other. One was a taciturn, overworked middle aged woman who always left as soon as "Ita Missa est" because she had to leave her nearly 100 year-old mother alone at home, who had a tendency to fall out of bed. The other was a merry extrovert stockbroker who served as an usher. He noted her tendency to leap up and dash for the parking lot to avoid the traffic jam, and one day he stopped her and said why didn't she want to stay and give thanksgiving, and socialise with everyone else? She gave him a polite but severe lecture on the difficulties of being a sole caregiver. He immediately apologised, and told her God probably thought she was "A hell of a lot holier than he was." I was told of the incident by both people from both equally valid points of view--- a sort of "God's eye view." Food for thought. . . . .

Karen Hill
9 months 3 weeks ago

Very simply, I sit at the end of the pew in the first row to be close to the Eucharist. I most certainly will move to the center if need be.

Elizabeth Stevens
9 months 3 weeks ago

I belong to a very active student center parish at a large state university. The only "old" parishioners are current or retired faculty and staff of the university. Our parish has about 25% turnover every year, with about 90% turnover every 4 years. So the "permanent community" all give way to the students whenever we can, and on Sundays and holy days and Ash Wednesday the church is always crowded at all 5 regularly scheduled Masses. Our pastors and hospitality ministers regularly "part the waters" as the church fills, asking everyone to move away from the center aisle, so the ends of the pews along the center aisle free up visibly. They also actively help the later arrivals to find seats in some of the less visible corners of the church. Those who need end seats because of the various reasons mentioned in these posts typically come early and claim either seats in the middle of the pew or at the outside end so they don't have to move again.. This seems to work very well.

Andrew Strada
9 months 3 weeks ago

Overthinking seems to be an occupational hazard for Jesuits!

Wm M
9 months 3 weeks ago

Love it!

Adrian Johnson
9 months 2 weeks ago

This gets my vote for best comment of the lot. . . . :-)

Ken Stammerman
9 months 2 weeks ago

My sentiments exactly!

Christopher Meehan
9 months 3 weeks ago

I don’t think the meaning of this article was to gather excuses from everyone on why they may sit at the end of a pew. It’s a great reflection on one of the issues facing many of our dwindling parishes across the country.

Wm M
9 months 3 weeks ago

What's so difficult about taking people just the way they are? The lady wants to move over? Fine. The lady wants to step out into the aisle and let me slide in? Fine. The lady wants me to squeeze in with her in place? Fine. What's the big deal here? Sounds like the typical whining we get from the "oh, it's so hurtful" crowd.

Camille Kazmierczak
9 months 3 weeks ago

Exactly...

Brack Guthrie
9 months 3 weeks ago

How petty. Show up 15 minutes before mass and stake our claim. Problem solved. That way you aren't "climbing over" people or coming late and expecting everyone else to move because you cant get to church on time.

Peter Connor
9 months 3 weeks ago

I chuckled to myself when I read the article and the comments. Sometimes, it's not about where in the pew people sit, it's WHICH pew people sit in. At 90, my mother would give the stare of death to anyone who happened to get into the church before her and sit in HER pew! She'd look at me with that "What's the matter with people, anymore!" I'd smile and say, "Ma, let's go here," which was the pew immediately behind 'her' pew. I attribute that to her age and the driving forces that made up her conventions. She came from a different time. But: With full confession, as her son, I too like the end of the pew. And frankly, I have to specifically think to move to the center, which I will do, but only when prompted by the arrival of another parishioner (or guest) who wants to occupy a spot in 'my' pew!

Kathleen Brown
9 months 3 weeks ago

Wherever people sit for whatever reasons, thank God they are coming to celebrate! I sit in the center for a personal reason--I'm short. If I sit on the end, lots of tall people are blocking my view. I want to see the priest, I want to see the sanctuary, but sorry, I sit in the center for selfish reasons. Just trying to be a little light-hearted about this. Keep coming to Mass everyone--sit where you want to and come as you are!!!!

Jackie St Hilaire
9 months 3 weeks ago

This situation happened to me with a lady who always sits at the end of the bench .
I am a 75 year old woman and and my daughter's family are friends with this lady's family.
I always lead to find a seat and thought it would be nice for us to sit with her, since she is most of the time alone because the rest of her family is in the music ministry.
I get to the bench, she is at the end and I attempt to move in next to her and she tells me that she prefers to stay there and be alone.
I was a bit annoyed by her response and took the seat behind.
I was only trying to be friendly.
I felt more pity for this lady because of her misunderstanding of what church community is all about.
Somehow we all got through the peace hand shake and did talk with one another afterwards.
Sad, sad, sad. Her brother is a Benedictine priest and with 50 years after Vatican council, you would think that some of it would have rubbed off on her. Sorry to make the judgment but we have a long way to go. Thank goodness for Pope Francis.

E.Patrick Mosman
9 months 3 weeks ago

Reminds me of a story told by a visiting Passionist priest who arrived very early at an empty Church and took an aisle seat several rows from the front and knelt to pray before going to the sacristy. Soon he felt tap on his shoulder, looked up and on elderly lady said "you are in my seat".

kevin davitt
9 months 3 weeks ago

Father - love this. I'm 63 and have lived in over a dozen parishes. It's always the same. And I don't buy the fact that it's the domain of the elderly or handicapped.
Our Lady of Mt. Carmel which I attend now has designated pews for those purposes and it still doesn't work.
Kudos for having the guts to point this out.

Sharon Mulloy
9 months 3 weeks ago

It may not be true of everyone, but I am not old (yet) but I sit in the end of the pew. 1, because I have severe arthritis (not obvious to others) and need help pushing myself up and down. 2, because incense triggers my asthma horribly and father loves to use it, so I do need to escape if my inhaler isn't helping. I don't know why you would have to crawl over. I get up and out to let people in. This is interesting, but maybe you should ask why instead of assuming.

Brigid Fitzgerald
9 months 3 weeks ago

We all get pretty defensive when we read articles. This articles certainly was not about people who have a need to an aisle seat, it is not about people who step out so others can step into a pew - it is for the rest of us to think about what action we can take to be more welcoming . All it takes is each of us looking out for those around us. That may be recognising someone needs the aisle, or someone who needs the aisle explaining that, it may also be recognising I am a person who can move to the center. It may be just saying hello as you come into a pew. It should not require anyone to get there 15 minutes early to stake out a place - let’s remember there are also reasons people may not be able to get their early. We are community.

Marian Ronan, Ph.D.
9 months 3 weeks ago

Sixty years ago, in the white-ethnic Catholic school I attended in Philly, the nuns told us that Catholics always moved to the middle of the pews; the Protestants owned their seats in their churches. So maybe we’ve become Protestants? But now I do sometimes sit at the end, when I know I drank too much tea that morning, or if I’m a lector that day. Like many questions, it’s complicated.

Christopher Lochner
9 months 3 weeks ago

Very well written and so true but... I must be shallow. The coffee mug would be wayyyy good enough for me. ;))

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