It is my opinion that having some familiarity with various religious movements and worship services that differ significantly from one’s own is helpful in promoting inter-religious dialogue and understanding. To that end, I have visited several services of Christian and non-Christian sects, and have found the experiences very interesting. In this series, I offer a preview as to what to expect for the benefit of those who are considering doing likewise.
The Roman Catholic worship service is called a Mass. The word is taken from the Latin missa meaning “to send forth.” In the Latin rite, “Go forth” is one of the last things said during the service, and it eventually became shorthand for referring to the whole service (which is technically titled “The Liturgy of the Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ”). Individual churches are called parishes.
Appropriate dress can differ by parish, but business casual to formal is usually best for men and women. Children often remain with their parents for Mass, but some parishes provide a nursery. Also, a children’s liturgy may take place, wherein children (usually ~ ages 3-8) are sent out with a blessing from the priest before the Liturgy of the Word. Volunteers will then teach the children a Bible lesson related to that Sunday’s readings. Children will rejoin the congregation during the taking up of the collection, which takes place before the Liturgy of the Eucharist (aka “Communion”).
Roman Catholic churches differ quite a bit from one another in architecture and furnishing details, but some basic features should be present in most. Some sort of entrance area (the Narthex) awaits within the main doors, and this is where a baptismal font, fountain, or some sort of container for water should be available. This contains the blessed water, and members will touch their fingertips to it and make the sign of the cross as they enter and exit the service. This they do in memory of their baptism.
Entering the Nave (the main part of the church building), there will usually be rows of pews. Members will genuflect (kneel on the right knee in honor of the presence of Christ) toward the front altar with the tabernacle (a box containing the Eucharist) before entering and after exiting the pew row. There is generally no special seating, but if you are not early, do not use the central aisle as you may block the procession.
Decor can differ greatly in Roman Catholic churches, but expect to find a prominent crucifix (a cross with Jesus on it) at the center of attention. The crucifixion is the pivotal event of history and so is memorialized in every Roman Catholic church. You will probably not see many icons (as you would in more eastern churches including Eastern Rite Catholic), but instead there will usually be stained glass windows, paintings, statues, candles, etc. Candles may be lit for prayer “intentions” (i.e., one’s intention to say a prayer for another) – the candle symbolizing the prayer. These are often placed before a statue of Jesus or of the Virgin Mary.
Note on Prayer and Worship
A couple of important distinctions should be kept in mind as you watch what people are doing, for there are two sets of actions that often appear equivalent that should be kept distinct: worship and veneration.
Prayers in Roman Catholicism may be made to God or through the saints (the redeemed people in Heaven). Since the saints are not technically dead (Mt. 22:32 / Mk. 12:27), they can pray for people just as living people on Earth may pray for one another. “Prayer” means “ask,” and so when someone speaks of prayer to the saints it is asking of the saints for prayer (so it is kind of like asking someone to pray for you). Thus, it is not worship.
Roman Catholics make a distinction between dulia (“veneration”) and latria (“worship”). Worship is made to God alone, while veneration is the proper respect shown to others. (An easy way to remember this is that idolatry is the combining of “idol” and “latria.”) The reverence given to the saints is dulia, and Mary is said to receive hyperdulia, because she is the highest of the saints. Veneration is expressed through means that may seem like worship to those unfamiliar with Roman Catholic practices, but it is not the same thing.
The service begins with a procession of the priests, deacons, and other servers. During the procession an opening song or recitation may opccur as the priest and other ministers enter the church and set up around the altar. Responsive prayers / readings will follow (these are all in the Missal service books or programs which are usually provided). It can be difficult to follow along as numerous variations are possible, so if you are not used to it, just pay attention to what others are doing.
The Liturgy of the Word includes a reading from the Old Testament, a Psalm, a New Testament Epistle, and one from a Gospel. At the reading of the Gospel you might notice people making small cross signs with their thumb on their forehead, mouth, and heart indicating that they wish the Gospel to be in their minds, in their speech, and in their hearts. A short message or “homily” follows (fifteen minutes or less is common). After this comes the corporate profession of the faith where the Nicene Creed is recited in unison. Then come some guided prayers which are also responsive.
Next is the Liturgy of the Eucharist – the centerpiece of the service. The priest will pray over the bread and wine (when he says, “This is my body / This is my blood,” that is the moment Roman Catholics believe the elements are transubstantiated into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus Christ). The Communion Rite includes reciting the Our Father (the “Lord’s Prayer”), and several other interactive activities including the Peace (an embrace, handshake, or other appropriate gesture of peace with those around you will do). After this, the distribution of the Eucharist begins. People are released by rows. Non-Catholics and Catholics who are not properly prepared are not allowed to participate (as this would be communicating something false about their beliefs).
Not long after the Communion Rite is the Concluding Rite which is basically a dismissal. Wait at least until the ministerial procession passes and / or the ushers to dismiss your row, then you may get up to leave.
For more of what to expect in Roman Catholic worship, try these helpful links: