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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Brigid Fitzgerald
4 months 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.
4 months 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
4 months ago

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

Stephanie Schuler
4 months ago

Great article Father. The responses prove that you hit a nerve. Obviously you were not referring to anyone with special needs, like an elderly or disabled person or those with small children. You were talking more about an attitude.
You struck a cord with me, as we are in Hawaii (did not think about it being the first week of Lent!). Well, we’ve been to Mass 3 times in seven days, in 3 different parishes. Last night was the best! A hug and real lei greeting from the pastor. Escort to the best seats so we weren’t blasted by the AC. Everyone talked to us. Some tourists take a taxi, (we drove) and are offered a ride back to the hotel. I was watching Father sign the Our Father and got a gentle tap to hold hands. The church building was old with simple furnishings. Best parish I’ve been to in a long time. We could learn from them! Aloha!

Carolann Cirbee
4 months ago

Speaking up for those of us who are introverts and who have agoraphobia that may range from mild to severe: being closely packed in with other people can make it difficult to breathe, let alone pray. Church protocol undoubtedly works well for hearty extroverts - and it's wise to remember that all God's people come in all kinds of surprising packaging.

Roberta Crispino
4 months ago

I like to sit up front, right behind the Eucharistic Ministers, 2nd pew. I sit on the end. I like an unobstructed view. Plus, those front pews are always empty.

Jerry Peters
3 months 2 weeks ago

Correct, front pews always empty, back rows always full.

Bill Niermeyer
4 months ago

I always come into Church late. This way I can scope out the area where no one is seated and go there. Just my preference and nothing more. For the SOP I always give a little smile and nod of the head not into physical contact.

Jeanne Devine
4 months ago

Thanks, Father, for helping us understand why we worship and how we welcome (or don't) other worshipers. As a United Methodist pastor for decades, I have seen exactly the same phenomenon in UM churches. "You can climb over me, I'm not moving." It seems we're all individuals, and a sense of community is hard to come by in churches of all denominations. I'm glad for the testimonies from some about truly welcoming churches. Loving our neighbors at least as much as we love ourselves would help--a lot.

Gerald Gioglio
4 months ago

Ok, I get this.....yet some of us are readers and ministers and to be efficient, we need to be on the end......just sayin.' Peace and Good, JG

Megan Kenney
4 months ago

That is why I sit on the end. Or else I am climbing over people several times during Mass.

Franklin P. Uroda
4 months ago

Weird. I never realized the priority part of the pew. Privilege Parking spots, yes.

Lisa Weber
4 months ago

How interesting that this article has drawn so many comments! Maybe we need to have shorter pews so there are more end seats.

Meg Stahley
4 months ago

I absolutely agree with you, Father. I sit in the middle every time I go to Mass. I am no spring chicken, nor are those around me who do the same. (The end of the pews are usually occupied by those much younger than the rest of us.)

Deb Brunsberg
4 months ago

I have to say that you have a case of presuming you know what is going through people's minds regarding sitting at the end of a pew and you are wrong . In my parish, people know to enter from the outside of the pew, not the inner aisle. That makes it easier for those who do come late to get into a pew without drawing attention to themselves or interrupting the Mass. You won't have to climb over anyone if you stopped and looked first. :)

I always sit on the end, next to the aisle. I have claustrophobia. I can't even sit on the inside seat in a restaurant booth. I also have a brace on my leg so getting up and down for communion is a little difficult and it helps that there is no one on the left of me.

I guess I can only say to those who must suffer the horrible indignity of maybe crawling over someone that they could try getting to Mass earlier to nab that high rent spot or they could offer it up to God. He did for you, maybe you could endure that weekly crawl. Labeling people as selfish on this issue is pretty lame and really, that it is an issue at all, in a world full of sin and horror, is also pretty lame.

Sheila Logan
4 months ago

I am short and wherever I sit the tallest person in the row ahead of me stand and block my view. I’ve even sat in the center of sthe cond row and again the tallest person is in front of me.

JOHN WINTERS
4 months ago

With all the problems facing our church why are we devoting space to this topic. It is a non-issue.

BARBARA LEE
4 months ago

Dear Fr. Bentz: It's not about you. I sit at the end when possible because I am short, and from the middle I often can't see the priest. I know people who are claustrophobic. One commenter mentioned the special problems of older people. Next time you have to "crawl over" someone, try greeting the person, or just smiling. It's harder to be critical when you see the face of a human being.

J. Calpezzo
4 months ago

To me, this article makes no sense. I sit wherever I want to sit if seats are available, and many times that is at the end of the pew. I happily stand in the aisle and let pass when others wish to sit in the middle of the pew. Rather than inane articles like this, are there not more stories about the implementation of Laudato Si, human rights issues, the morality of the U.S. re-arming not only ourselves but most of the major powers in the volatile Middle East, etc.?

Lance Landgraf
4 months ago

Sorry I can not agree. My wife and I may be severing as Lectors or assisting in Communion, or maybe being a special add in Usher. We are better off sitting on the ends so we don't have to climb over people.

rick mazzola
4 months ago

I think we should concentrate more on getting more people to Mass than "First Class" seating. And by that I mean sermons that relate the message of the readings and the Gospel to real life. What is more important than Jesus turning water into wine is that God himself listened to his Mother and that's what we should be doing; that Jesus waited two days to raise Lazarus is not the important thing but that God does things on his timeline and so we should accept that delay in asking in pray is not rejection, etc. etc. As for me when I do sit in what you disparaging refer to "First Class" seating I always get up so people who come later can easily get into the pew or I simply move myself. Let's focus more on Christs message and how it fits into our daily lives and how we should live our daily lives rather than where we sit!

Stanley Kopacz
4 months ago

Wow. This article got comments at a level usually reserved for LGBT topics. Touched a nerve. Bzzzt! And generated a bit of steam. Ssssss!

mimi steffen
4 months ago

The gist of the article should be read at every parish, before the Mass begins. We are often called the welcoming church. Are we? We often and and say hello to those we know? Do we introdouce ourselves to those we don't?.

Ann DeMarle
4 months ago

One of the most memorable Masses I ever attended, our priest asked us all to get u ad change our seats, moving from back to front. He acknowledged it would be uncomfortable but celebrated how it would also enable us to take risks just as Christ's followers had and which we must as his modern followers. We obliged and yes, in future weeks we settled back in again but the community was strengthened by such a simple request. And the congregation was a welcoming one. Thank you for sharing your experience on how we can be more welcoming.

Nina BG
4 months ago

These comments are lively but, in honesty, I don't consider anything at all about where I sit in the pews except to be able to see the priest. Period.

What I was more interested in was this idea that was mentioned about being welcomed. This, to me, is quite strange. I don't need to be welcomed into ANY Catholic church. I'm Catholic. I BELONG there.

For those who are not Catholic, the church doors are open to ALL. "Come and see." And I hope you are more interested in what is happening in the sanctuary than in what the people around you are doing or saying. Please keep your eyes focused on what matters (it sure ain't about where you sit). Just sayin'.

Charles Monsen
4 months ago

Thank you - You would think the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist would be welcoming enough.

Adrian Johnson
4 months ago

Wise comments, both.

Jerry Peters
3 months 2 weeks ago

The doors are open to all, but many doors are closing for good. Why? The attitude of sitting at the end seat without a good reason sums it up.

Anthony Esolen
4 months ago

I really DON'T like being officially "welcomed" at an unfamiliar church. I find it aggressive and rude and a little bit phony, to boot. Most especially I do not appreciate being fairly compelled to stand, to give my name, to say where I am from, and so forth. Other people may like it; that I don't know. Maybe women like it better than men do. I can say that if it happens to me once, it will make it certain that I won't return to that place. I do enjoy human fellowship. I do not enjoy the superficial and cheap imitation.

Now, as to the seating arrangement -- I think that people are not comfortable, when there are plenty of seats available, sitting in such a way as to make it seem as if other people who are not with you are about to arrive. That would tend to "block" BOTH sides of the pew, to your right and to your left. So maybe the thing to do, in a church that is not particularly crowded, is to sit where you are most comfortable sitting, but to keep an eye on what is going on, and if it appears that the church will be full or near to full, to move over to the middle for the convenience of those who arrive just on time or a minute or two late.

It has nothing to do with ideology, and nothing to do with theology. We are talking about politeness here.

laura_in_virginia@hotmail.com
3 months 3 weeks ago

Why, pray tell, do you imagine women enjoy the "superficial and cheap imitation" of fellowship more than you/men-in-general?

Rich Phillips
4 months ago

For those who serve as lectors or leaders, our parish reserves an aisle spot with a sign on the back of that pew indicating that it is reserved. If the leader/lector wishes to sit with his or her family they just pass by the reserved seat and everyone in that pew just spreads out a little. Works great.

Rebecca Coomes
4 months ago

I sit on the end for three separate reasons, which I won't go into here. I don't make anyone"climb over" me. I get up, smile at them, and let them step into the pew. If anyone is miffed or aggravated that I don't give them the end seat, then perhaps they have charity issues themselves. And finally, I don't go to Mass for "community", I go to worship God. If I want fellowship, I'll hang out in the parish hall after Mass. As it is, the back slapping, yucking it up and socialization going on in the nave are proof positive of how few believe in the Real Presence....or these same folks would be in awed silence before the King of the Universe, not nattering on as though they were in a coffee shop. JMHO, YMMV.

Fr. Thomas Bailey, OSB
4 months ago

I'm a regular Mass goer, but I neither sit at the end of a pew or in the middle of a pew. And it is very rare that anyone tries to take my seat.

Monica Doyle
4 months ago

Two years ago my then 87 year old mother collapsed in the middle of Mass and an ambulance had to be called, with her being carried out on a stretcher. After a trip to the ER, and many tests, all the ER came up with was dehydration. But because of this, and her advancing age ( now she’s nearly 90) , I am skittish about taking her to Church. She gets confused as to what day of the week it is so if she doesn’t realize it’s a Sunday we don’t tell her, as it would upset her if she felt she missed Mass. Although I do have a handicapped tag for our car, so we can park close to the church entrance, I am still concerned enough to check out all the conditions, such as whether it’s raining or not and whether it will be sunlight or darkness upon leaving, If all the conditions are right ( I’m thinking of last August 15th when the sun was still shining in the evening) I will bring my mother to Mass. But it is really important to me to sit at the end of the pew with her, in case she collapses again. The older she gets, the more important that becomes to me. I understand your point, as not everyone who sits at the end has these concerns, but maybe an announcement could be made for everyone who is able to please move to the middle. Maybe a gentle prodding would separate those who truly need to sit at the end from those who just find it convenient. Just a suggestion.

Sally Ann Glenn
4 months ago

Father,I too am one of those people! I sit at the end so I can more fully participate. I am 4’9” and if I am not at the end I can’t see what is going on. To me that is essential to my participation. We sit in the second seat, left side of main aisle. Also, quite frequently we are Eucharistic ministers. Please don’t judge. God bless

Mary Ellen LaRose
4 months ago

I sit at the end of the pew because I get claustrophobic if I don’t. Some of us do have valid reasons. If someone wants to go in the pew, I stand up and move out of the way so they can go in.

Rebecca Górzyńska
4 months ago

I think the aisle-clinging is a US thing, not a Catholic thing. Our parish church in Tarchomin, Warsaw is tiny - for sure fewer than 200 can sit. People are always packed standing like sardines too. Old people get to Mass early for seats but I have never seen anyone, in any parish here, "cling" to the aisles like in my parish in the US. Everyone scoots over. Plus no bathroom facilities at all! XD The cry room/wiggly kid space = outside. AND, people regularly give up those coveted seats for pregnant women or women holding babies <3

Debra Smith
4 months ago

I disagree. If you want to sit where you want to sit then get to mass early. It really doesn't hurt. I do this because I have a serious fear of being in the middle of something so I need to be on an end. There is nothing more irritating that someone coming in just before the priest and me having to move from my chosen seat. I step out into the aisle and let them in so that they don't have to trip over me.

Taco Bell
4 months ago

We need god and church less and less, but I agree that we need community and a more centrist point of view. Can Sundays become the community days we need as a country and culture? Can we ditch the old book and start inclusively trying to listen and solve our local problems every week in the place of worship? I see that as the way forward and the way to pack the pew again.

Jill Caldwell
4 months ago

Hard to believe we even have to discuss this. If I am going to mass to receive the body and blood of my Savior, I will sit on nails or stand on my head. Who is more welcoming than Jesus who gives us His body and blood? As I read this I pictured Jesus feeding thousands saying "move to the middle please. We want everyone to feel welcome."

Faith Sharkey
4 months ago

Interesting article. I am an "end" sitter. I guess I have never seen someone sitting on the end as a Stop and do not enter sign...hmmm. The reasons I sit on the end are because I am divorced and my children are grown and have flown the coup....as they should. I enjoy Eucharistic adoration and would rather be praying before Mass....often praying that I am not distracted by the families struggling in the pews next to me, in front of me, in back of me, and the aging...a group I am rapidly joining...who greet everyone enthusiastically if often LOUDLY. This makes focus and prayer a little difficult. I don't wish to worship by myself, but all this activity seems to emphasize how easily I am distracted and seems to highlight that I am there by myself especially if I am squeezed between families or unwelcoming, if well meaning, parishioners. I do sit other places in the church...in the middle...when others are in need...canes, crutches, etc. When I sit on the "end", I see it as an opportunity to greet and assist others like myself.... single parents with children and those who look a little confused about the church etc. I try to help those around me by making sure they have orders of worship, bulletins, and hymnals. After Mass is concluded, I make a point of telling the people that sit next to me what a privilege it was to worship with them especially if I don't know them. However, I will try to take your critique to heart, and I will try to do things another way.
Food for thought:
Even though I will challenge my somewhat introverted self to move around a bit and try to become comfortable in other positions, I think the "take away" from this article may not be the position of our seating, but do we really have a welcoming spirit toward those with whom we worship?

Ken Stammerman
4 months ago

At our parish, daily Mass at 7 A.M. finds most of the 30 to 40 Faithful from all over our part of town - it's one of the only 7 AM. Masses around, scattered front to back and mostly near or at the ends of the pews. We're not handicapped, but with the average age, like mine, over 70, you want to be able to retreat to the restroom aside the vestibule without it being too obvious. It's the same reason I always have an aisle seat on airplanes. We have a handicapped area, but most of us are not yet at that stage - and several will stay after Mass to meditate, so it isn't for a quick exit. As for welcoming, a smile and a hello, on Sundays, with kids in the family holding the doors open is nice enough. It's a Passionist parish, and one thing I hear from newcomers is that they come back for the homilies and the Passionist spirituality. On Sundays, we are usually at the end of a pew because on Sundays it is a young parish with families spread out over many of the pews and if you arrive later than five minutes before Mass, you end up on the side on the aisle.

Joe Mcmahon
3 months 3 weeks ago

Thank you, Fr. Bentz, for attending Masses without being the celebrant. That's one way to learn the liturgical experiences of the faithful. Your views and the diverse views of those commenting have resonated with me. For further insight, I recommend the book "Sundays in America" by Suzanne Shea (2009), in which she relates fifty visits to non-Catholic Christian churches across our country. She is quite perceptive and illuminating, visiting mega churches and small churches both.
---
The other day, I noticed in the bulletin of St. Agnes, Naples, Florida, the February 11, 2018, attendance of 7,796. In my parish of 5,500 families in suburban New York, I am often alone in the center of a pew that has space for nine. Some attendees do claim the end of the pew, but there is always an empty place nearby. On the commuter train in rush hour, I point to the empty cramped seat, say "Please," and my wish is always granted.

Steven Szmutko
3 months 3 weeks ago

Of course, Father has a reserved spot, so his seat is good to go!

David Balko
3 months 3 weeks ago

You are neglecting the rudeness of those who wait until one minute before Mass starts to show up or the ones who are perpetually late and slide in at the end, while shoving you in the claustrophobic middle of the pew. And, if there are those who want the "community" spirit of the church, then maybe THEY should sit in the middle, surrounded by their fellow parishioners.
I attended a Catholic church on vacation once in St. Pete's FL. Sunday Mass and there were LOADS of empty pews--the whole pew, end and middle! Some woman came up next to our pew and said, "Excuse me", so I "scootched" up to let her by. She became indignant and huffed away. A WHOLE church filled with empty seats--many of them end seats--but she had to have mine. I believe there are people in this world who just want to make a big issue about something unimportant.

Jerry Peters
3 months 2 weeks ago

If I were you, I would have moved to a different pew.

janet macdonald
3 months 2 weeks ago

Overthought and a tad judgemental? I'm 5ft tall and find it difficult to see if the front pews are filled. I'm also a senior and find it difficult to move in and out of the pew. Try giving people the benefit of the doubt.

Jerry Peters
3 months 2 weeks ago

Wow, so many excuses and arguments for sitting at the end of the pew. When those people try to get to heaven, God will say I'm taking those who sit first in the center of the pew, even though they were elderly, infirm, with children, etc. All those others will have to wait a long time to enter ( because you were rude and selfish).
The excuse that you are elderly is false. You get ready for church at home, you drive or walk to church, you then walked into the church. You did all that and you were elderly.

However, for those who did automatically sit at the end of the pew without really thinking or knowing about the points brought out in the article, they will likely no longer initially sit at the end of the pew after reading the article.

Mike Macrie
3 months 2 weeks ago

LOL - you ask for it on this topic. In these days there are so many empty pews that it’s usually not a problem of having to climb over people.

Mike Macrie
3 months 2 weeks ago

LOL - you ask for it on this topic. In these days there are so many empty pews that it’s usually not a problem of having to climb over people.

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