Not long ago, I took a call from a woman who was upset over gum chewing at Mass. Hers was not the first such complaint I have heard over the years. In fact, gum chewing at Mass is one of my pet peeves. Just do a little Googling on the subject and you will be amazed at the number of online articles, blogs, and church bulletins that speak out about the problem. Some of the stories are downright disturbing. Like the time someone found a waxy glob of gum stuck on the side of the hymnal rack with what appeared to be small pieces of a host embedded into it. Or the teenager who chomps his gum all through Mass, sometimes pulling it out of his mouth, into long strands, and then slowly wrapping it around his finger. True story.
Have you ever sat near someone in church who is chewing on a wad of gum like a cow chewing cud? I have. I once witnessed a young man at Mass make his way to the altar chomping on a wad of gum. Open-mouthed chewing mind you. When he reached the front, I saw the priest put a host in his hand. He took the host and consumed it. And he kept on chomping and chewing all the way back to his seat. One can only imagine particles of the host (Jesus!) being worked into this guy's soggy piece of gum, which would later be tossed into the trash—or, worse yet, chucked into the street. When incidents like this happen to me at Mass, it takes all my self-discipline not to glare at the offender.
How did this gum-chewing problem get so out of control? Some will say, "Chewing gum at Mass is a problem because so many of these Catholics are victims of poor catechesis. They just do not know any better." In many cases, that is probably true. And, when true, it is tragic. But whatever happened to good old common sense? I am sure most gum-chomping Catholics would not think to chew gum in a private audience with the Queen of England. "What?" they might say, "Chewing gum in front of the Queen of England? Why, that would be undignified and disrespectful!" Okay. So it is undignified and disrespectful to chew gum in front of important dignitaries, but it is perfectly fine to do so in the presence of Jesus Christ?
On the other hand, this is not merely a post-Vatican II problem. The Church has long dealt with the problem of congregants who forget they are in a church. St. Paul chastised people to do their eating and drinking at home:
What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not (1 Cor. 11:22).
In seventeenth-century Mexico, a bishop feuded with the local gentry over drinking chocolate during Mass:
Thomas Gage (1603-1656), an English Dominican friar and traveler, tried to intervene with the Bishop of Chiapas, Mexico, over the congregation drinking chocolate during services. The women were fond of chocolate and turned church services into a coffeehouse. The bishop tried to end this, and was consequently found dead. Poisoned chocolate was sent to the bishop and Thomas Gage fled Chiapas. The rumor was that the women, who so hated the bishop for this restriction, poisoned him with chocolate, hence the proverb "Beware the chocolate of Chiapa."
Eventually, in 1662, Pope Alexander VII put a final solution to the affair when he declared "Liquidum non frangit jejunum." Translated it means "Liquids (including chocolate) do not break the [Communion] fast."
Nota bene: Now that the danger to the health of bishops who forbid chocolate at Mass has passed, chocolate does break the Communion fast (canon 919, Code of Canon Law). Gum, being neither a food or drink but a substance intended for chewing and then discarding (like tobacco), does not break the Communion fast.
I think we can agree that inappropriate behavior at Mass like chewing gum (not to mention inappropriate dress and unnecessary cell-phone use) is symptomatic of a bigger problem: We simply do not understand why we are at Mass—which is why we treat the liturgy as if it were a picnic or a ball game (or coffeehouse, as was the case for the Mexican ladies demanding their chocolate).
While we are waiting for catechesis to take effect in the hearts and minds of the gum chewers at Mass, what can the average parish priest do to correct this problem? Take it away, Fr. Richard Kunst:
If I see a single person chewing gum in the entire church, I say this right before Communion: "Would those who are chewing gum please dispose of it before coming to Communion?"
At first, I got a few giggles, but now the gum chewing in my Masses has gone way down. I don't have to say it as often, and when I don't notice a particular gum chewer, either one of my parishioners sitting near them will say something to the person, or one of my flock will tell me about it after Mass. . . .
Mass is not a ball game, it's where heaven and earth kiss, where time and eternity meet because the Lord of lords and the King of kings becomes present on the altar. What kind of manners are shown when people come into that setting chomping on gum as if they were at a picnic? Their parents ought to have some old-time Catholic educator slap them with a ruler for not having taught their children a basic understanding of manners or theology.