A few months ago at Mass, a couple with their young daughter entered the pew directly in front of my husband and me. Everything was fine until the Confiteor, when the husband turned to wife and proceded to have a conversation with her. Not a few words mind you, but a conversation. This got the little girl's attention, so she stood up on the pew and began to interact with her parents. My first line of defense in situations like this is to close my eyes until I think the coast is clear. So I closed my eyes until we were halfway through the Creed, only to open them to find hubby now making funny faces at his daughter. Wife would glance over and smile. The distracting shenanigans continued. I could feel people around us tensing. I could tell the man next to me was getting ready to take off his jacket.
The next tool in my arsenal was a throat clearing followed with a foot tap under their seat. It was ignored. By the time we got to the homily, hubby was making paper airplanes out of the bulletin. Daughter was squirreling around on the seat. Wife continued to smile with approval. But it was when hubby leaned over to grab the attention of another little girl in the row in front of them that I decided on a major intervention. I tapped hubby’s shoulder, and when he turned around I shushed him. I shushed him good. Hubby and wife were stunned.
But guess what? They stopped all the distracting behaviors and sat quietly through the rest of the Mass. While I probably shouldn’t have waited so long to intervene, it underscores the problem of distractions at Mass and how they negatively impact the interior dispositions of the faithful. In his address Active Participation in the Sacred Liturgy, Cardinal Francis Arinze asks: “Why, we may well ask, must the people of God be afflicted with so many distractions when they come to adore God on Sunday?”
Now I’m not suggesting that every distraction one experiences at Mass should be met with a thump on the back and a scolding. For example, a crying baby, a cell phone ring, coughing, someone exiting the pew—these are distractions that would never warrant a rebuff. Nor am I suggesting that people start acting like liturgical vigilantes who are on the lookout for offenders to punish.
What I am suggesting is this: When you see a serious distraction going on in front of you (e.g., chatting during the consecration) and it’s something a gentle nudge can solve, don’t wait until things ramp up to the point where a tap on the shoulder becomes a firm shake. Correct with charity. Be firm and respectful. Then give the person a warm smile at the sign of peace.
Other horrific distractions like people texting at Mass, playing games on the phone—not to mention the embarrassing "wardrobe malfunctions" witnessed at Mass—these are best handled by your priest. When you have that conversation with him, be charitable. Priests get a lot of complaints. Let him know your concerns. Then, along with your concern, offer an idea on how to make things better.
This Year of Faith is a perfect opportunity for priests to use the pulpit to remind the faithful why we celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice, how our bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) at Mass “ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1387) and how important it is that “[a] church must also be a space that invites us to the recollection and silent prayer that extend and internalize the great prayer of the Eucharist” (CCC 1185).
“For one and all, the earnest prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper, 'That all may be one' (John 17:21)" (Christifideles Laici).