How should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?

Before I get down to business let me say how sorry I am for being MIA for so long! As I said in my previous post I have had a particularly trying semester, graduating and figuring out where in the world I am going to start my grown up life. A lot of things have fallen through the cracks in the last few months but now I’m putting things back together again, slowly but surely.

So after almost two whole months and without further ado…here’s the question:

Hello Carmen, Nadia, and Mary,

For the last two years I have been living in Trento, Italy.  I was born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Prior to moving here I only ‘snuck’ into the Cathedral of the Madeline in SLC a couple of times in high school. I was shocked that there were no adults around to supervise me and felt like I had gotten away with something.  Later in graduate school I used to love running by there on Sundays when the bells were ringing but I never went back inside.  Then I unexpectely moved to Italy.  I had never been outside of the US so the whole experience has been both terrifying and wonderful.  For the longest time I never went into a Duomo (Cathedral) and there are loads of them here.  Although I am not mormon I was still operating under a very Utah worldview.  I wasn’t sure I was allowed in and once I was through the doors I wasn’t sure what I was or wasn’t supposed to do. The big church in the middle of the city which everything seems to be built around, you are telling me I can just walk in there and have a look around . . . but I am not a Catholic and I don’t know what is happening in there.  After a few months I realized what a fool I was being.  You don’t need to be a card carrying Catholic to gain entrance.  Some of the most beautiful, awe inspiring art are found in these churches.  I have come to realize that as a respectful tourist it is okay for me to walk around and gaze at the amazing architecture and art.  Now I have been to Milan, Florence, Rome, Naples, Venice, Bologna, Verona, the Vatican, and numerous small towns so I have been into many, many Churches, Cathedrals, Basilicas, monasteries, etc.

Now that I am more comfortable in these sanctuaries I have been noticing what other people are doing.  I am sometimes shocked by how noisy and casual people are and these are people who have done the dip in the holy water followed by the quick kneel on one knee.  I tip toe around and marvel at the decor and contemplate all the people who have labored to make such beauty tangible and all the people who have worshipped in these places.  In January my husband and I visited several churches in Verona in one day.  Two of them had organ players and so I sat down in the pews and listened.  It was so wonderful.  The last church we visited was the best and I was so overcome with joy.  There was beautiful sunlight steaming in through the windows and I was feeling so incredibly grateful to be alive and to see all these historic places with my husband.  I was so moved by a silver and gold Madonna and child in that moment that I almost lit a candle.  At the last second I decided not to do this.  I am not a religious person and don’t consider myself a devout christian by any stretch.  Most of my spiritual experiences in life have been on mountain tops and in yoga class.  I do understand about giving thanks and the act of getting down on your knees and observing a higher power.
I guess my question is how should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?  And also how should you act if you are Catholic? Would it have been offensive if I had lit a candle and said a quick prayer?
Thanks so much for considering my questions.
Sincerely,
Amy

That’s me as a lector at my brother’s wedding

Dear Amy,

To be quite honest when I first read your question my first thought was “oh, how to act in a Catholic church? Don’t be an a**hole.” I never thought about how I am supposed to act in a Catholic Church. On the rare occasions when I drag my non-Catholic friends to Mass I always tell them, “sit and stand when I do, don’t kneel unless you want to, technically you’re not supposed to get Communion (that’s a whole other post) and when you come with me you must hold my hand during the Our Father.” Growing up the rules were simple: wear a cardigan to cover your shoulders, put your cell phone away, speak in a hushed voice and try not to get into any arguments with your siblings. Good rules I still follow. I am a cradle Catholic, immersed in churches, cathedrals, basilica and a heap of rules. In fact, these rules of decorum are so engrained in Catholics, those devote and not so much, that when I asked my dad how we are supposed to act in a cathedral he shrugged and said “uh…with respect?”
Catholics might be hyper sensitive to how to act in church. I’ve had quite a few unChristian moments staring down folks who are chatting it up during the Consecration or texting during the Homily.
Last summer my sister came to New York City to help me move out of my dormroom (and to you know, see the city). We went to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and there happened to be Mass going on. We weren’t there to attend Mass just to see the church and wander around a bit. I told my sister that it was completely fine to walk around the sanctuary, the pews and altar are roped off as to not disturb Mass but my sister felt uncomfortable. Mass is an incredibly sacred time and my sister did not want to interfere with anyone’s experience but peering around the statues and carvings. She totally could have but did not feel comfortable. When we returned later in the day we walked to the back of the cathedral where there is a small adoration chapel is. Just outside the chapel was a burly security guard keeping camera clicking and chatty tourists at bay. In an adoration chapel the Blessed Sacrament is exposed and we Catholics kneel in front of is and pray our guts out. In this case taking pictures in front of the literal Body of Christ, let alone while folks are praying in front of it is disrespectful, the security guard was to make sure everyone was respected.
While Catholic churches in the U.S. tend to be a lot looser than some might expect the same is not true for the Vatican. You can’t wear shorts or tank tops, women must be veiled or wear a hat and that’s just to visit. You certainly can’t wander about freely when Mass is being said.
As for whether or not you can light a candle–go for it. Religious practice is all about intent. I have Christian, Catholic, Atheist, Jewish and Muslim and searching friends all could go in and light a candle. Lighting a candle doesn’t mean much without prayerful intent or wanting to send good vibes out into the universe. Bottom line everyone might see you light a candle but they have no idea what’s going on in your head or your heart.
Much love,
Nadia
So readers what are your experiences roaming around places of worship? Any Catholic rules of conduct I left out?
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5 thoughts on “How should one act in a Catholic church if you are a non believer?

  1. Hi, everyone. AskJewishGirl here, also MIA for a while. I’ve been singing in churches (Episcopalian, Lutheran and yes, Catholic) and the main rule for all of them, as Nadia’s father said: “Respect.” Stand when everyone else does; sit when everyone else does; kneel if you choose. The same goes for synagogues, except we don’t kneel. We stand and sit, and on Yom Kippur some people prostrate themselves completely. So by all means, attend a service in an unfamiliar place of worship. It can be tremendously fulfilling.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve visited a few different Catholic churches and have done as you’ve suggested. Sometimes I feel like a dork because I have to keep referring to the book to keep up with everyone. I don’t know the proper responses at the proper times. But each time I’ve attended, usually by myself, people have been kind to me and when it comes time to shake hands with those around you, there are smiles everywhere.

  3. I think in this instance, blending in is the way to go….watch how people are acting around you (not the a**holes, the other ones!) and follow along in a respectful way. When I go to mass with my grandma, she makes me go up for Communion with my arms crossed over my chest and get a blessing from the priest–her granddaughter will not sit in the pews while everyone else files up! I think it’s funny how insistent she is about it. And hey, she’s 87 and was 100% gracious and supportive of me getting married in a Unitarian Universalist church…so if she wants me to walk up with my arms crossed for a blessing, then a blessing it is.

  4. well how should a catholic act if they say they follow the catholic doctrine? Can catholic person drink , party, lie , be cruel , adultery , take birth control , or have a tubal ligation to prevent pregnancy, approve same sex relationships I am a bit confused my sister in law was trying to educate me on the catholic doctrine and says she don’t have to go to church that she could pray anywhere she is doesn’t have to be a church. so confused so is the catholic doctrine we can do whatever we can as long as we confess all the sins we do on a daily basis and go to church every sunday and then we can sin all over again and go to same routine and confess and your good for the rest of the week until you go confess again ?

    • I’m currently super behind on blog upkeep but I feel that your questions require a full post. In the coming weeks check back for a response. For now I’ll leave you with this: The Church itself has specific doctrinal and theological teachings that guide our practices and behaviors. As in most churches and denominations we have a choice as to the level to which we follow these teachings.

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