In order to help our non-Catholic family, friends, and acquaintances feel more welcome and comfortable in our churches, here are a few “need to know” tips you can share with them as you drive to the church. First of all, the most likely occasions for non-Catholics to be in our churches are for sacraments and funerals. But with each of these, we still celebrate the Mass (unless the family does not want a wedding or funeral Mass, which is not quite as mind-boggling as the fact that the Church gives such an option).

  1. The sign of the Cross. As Catholics, we make the sign of the cross a lot when we pray. You don’t have to be Catholic to make the sign of the Cross and if you do it, you will fool most people into thinking you are Catholic and then you will be invisible for the rest of the Mass. Nobody has ever been struck by lightning for making the sign of the Cross. Catholics don’t mind if you do it and your non-Catholic friends are not there to see you do it. Here is how you do it: You do it all with your right hand. Holding your thumb to your pointy finger and your middle finger, you raise your hand to your forehead and say, “In the name of the Father”. Then you lower your hand below your sternum and touch your abdomen with your three digits and say, “and of the Son”. Then you move your hand to your left shoulder and say, “and of the Holy”. Then you bring your hand to your right shoulder and say, “Spirit. Amen”. During Mass, we do this when we enter the Church and at various times during the Mass, especially when the priest does it.
  2. Holy Water. Holy water is water which has been blessed by a priest. As we enter the church, there are holy water fonts near every entrance. This is your first chance to practice the sign of the Cross for real! You briefly dip your right hand into the water in the font. This is usually just the finger tip of your pointy finger so you don’t splash water all over yourself as you make the sign of the Cross with the holy water.
  3. After the holy water experience, you look for a pew. When you get to your desired pew, you don’t just step in and sit down. First, you genuflect toward the tabernacle. The tabernacle should be prominently visible directly in the center of the apse (on the high altar or behind the main altar). Oh my, I’m using a lot of churchy words here, aren’t I? Bear with me. Genuflection is the placing of your right knee, lightly and briefly on the ground as you face the tabernacle. It takes 2 seconds. Then you can enter the pew.
  4. After entering the pew, you can sit until your companions are all in place, then you put the kneeler down in front of you and kneel. This is your opportunity to pray for a few minutes before Mass starts. If you were running late and showed up after Mass has already started, you only pray for a few seconds, saying something like, “God, forgive me for being late.” It is best to show up at least fifteen minutes early for Mass so you can pray and prepare for Mass, but most Catholics do not even do that.
  5. First, the entire Mass is prayer, but when you first walk in, the congregation may be reciting the rosary. These are the die-hard Catholics who we all depend on because not only are they getting to Mass at least 20 minutes early, they are praying for us, so we can wise up and start praying more often too. The rosary is an ancient Christian prayer which comes from the early Church as well as from our Jewish roots. It is a meditative prayer in which we think about the life of Jesus through the eyes of his mother as we verbalize the memorized prayers. You do not have to pray it with us since you are new here, but you are welcome and encouraged to learn more about it. Some Catholics don’t even join in the rosary if their parish prays it before Mass, but Satan hates it when we are all praying together, so it is a good thing to do if you can.
  6. Drinks & Snacks. We don’t nosh during Mass. We don’t even have a coffee shop in the back of the Church and we certainly don’t bring a drink into Mass. I know it seems strange to get together with people without a coffee mug or a bottle of water, but Mass is probably not going to last more than an hour, so everyone makes it through. Additionally, Catholics must fast for at least one hour before receiving the Eucharist, so we certainly cannot have anything during Mass, not even chewing gum. We could have water with us, but again, most of us can go hours without a sip of water and there is usually a bathroom and drinking fountain nearby, so bringing our own water is unnecessary.
  7. We have to apologize here. As Catholics, we generally do not look around, make eye contact or smile very much while we are in the church. This is both good and bad. We truly are supposed to be focusing on God while we are in the church, but some of us take it to an extreme and can come across a little cold. Don’t take that personal. Most of us are normal people, it is just that in the church we can seem a little standoffish if you are not used to it. We do not talk, and we do not do much more than nod, half-smile, or give little waves from around our midsection. We save all of our normal social skills for the sign of peace shortly after the Our Father which is about 75% through the Mass. The sign of peace is a handshake with those sitting near you. You just shake hands and say, “peace be with you”. If you have just had a disagreement with your spouse, this can be an interesting moment in the Mass.
  8. During the Mass. Once Mass begins, all you need to do is imitate the Catholics around you. When we stand, you stand. When we sit you sit. When we kneel, you kneel. You are doing nothing to violate any non-Catholic faith by doing all these things. One thing some Catholics do that you should not do is to hold your hands up in the air or hold your hands out like the priest does at times. Most of us don’t do that though. Folding your hands in prayer is always right and acceptable.
  9. A special note about communion: You can even line up for communion when we do, but you cannot receive communion. If you want a personal blessing, you can approach the priest with your right hand on your left shoulder and your left hand on your right shoulder (in the form of an X which means you are a really bad person and are forbidden from communion. Actually, it just tells the priest that you are not receiving communion). The priest will likely bless you, then you turn and follow the rest of the people back to your pew. I think it is actually better that you do not approach for a personal blessing because the priest blesses you at the end of Mass anyway. You can remain in the pew the whole time while the rest of the people go up for communion. The time during communion is a great time to pray.
  10. Most of the Mass is set out in the missal. These are the books in the pew with you. It is not easy to follow all of it, but someone near you (especially the person who is giving you this list of tips) can show you which page we are on. There may also be a separate book for the songs. Feel free to sing along. We need all the help we can get! Most missals even have a prayer you can say called a spiritual communion. This prayer gives you an opportunity for special grace during the Mass because it is as if you are actually receiving the Eucharist, which is the peak and pinnacle of the Christian faith.
  11. After the Mass is over, you can kneel once again for a few moments and thank God for the good things in your life, including the Mass if it was a good experience for you. As you leave your pew, you genuflect toward the tabernacle again, then you leave. Most of us dip our finger in the holy water font on our way out as well and make the sign of the Cross once again.
  12. After Mass, ask a bunch of questions. The priest is commonly waiting for you at the main doors of the church. He usually takes the opportunity to greet people, chat a little bit and answer any questions people have. Most of the time, nobody has any questions. You can also ask questions of the person who invited you to Mass. This is the best time to ask questions because everything is fresh in your mind and in the minds of the people you were with.
  • Phil Alcoceli

    Good article! Not just for Mass First Timers, but for “regular” Catholics as well. In all areas, it’s an excellent idea to “go back to basics”. I won’t bore you with a rehash of the large variety of irreverence of some “regular” Catholics including those that can beat Usain Bolt in a mad dash (woosh!!) to get out of church before the priest even inhales to give the final blessing. Another good one for those “newbies”: Catholic Mass is real, authentic, true worship and connection to God and that explains the reverent seriousness of it in contrast with Protestant “worship” which is focused mostly on entertainment, loud music, a music band as the center of attention, while sipping StarCrooks coffee, burping and feeling entitled to ocassionally letting your internal gaseous prisoners experience freedom. Catholics find freedom where freedom is: Jesus Christ and his true freedom has a very high cost.

  • Martin Culpepper

    Way to go, Bob! Kept me smiling the whole time.