I’m blessed to still be a member of the very parish in which I was baptized as an infant. Most of the past nearly 50 years of Sundays have found me sitting (standing and kneeling) in a pew at Immaculate Conception Church. And like most Catholics, I’m usually in the same pew–or as close to the same pew as I can get.
Our church is an old one and when I was a little girl there were still some names written on the pew cards–names of folks already long gone by then. We most often sat in the former pew of Mr. and Mrs. Frank J. O’Brien. It was about two-thirds of the way back on the left side of the main aisle.
Today I still sit on the left side of the main aisle. When some crowded event like First Communion or Christmas forces me over to the right side, everything looks new and strange and uncomfortable. Even the people sitting around me aren’t the people I’m used to! But I no longer sit two-thirds of the way back. Instead, my family and I for years now have occupied the second or third pew when available.
You know why? Coats.
When I think back to the Sundays of my childhood, I don’t remember anything much about what was going on up on the altar. It was too far away and my view was blocked by a bunch of grownups. All I could see was the back of their coats, which no one took off during Mass during winter because the radiators we had then didn’t do the best job of keeping the church warm. Sometimes (with permission) I would stand on the kneeler to try to get a better view, but mostly I looked at the people in the nearby pews and waited for Mass to end.
The Masses I do remember quite well were at Saint Joseph School, and I don’t think it’s just because we went daily. No, I think it’s because we First Graders got to sit in the very first row, where we could hear and see everything Father Henkel was doing. I can still recall his exact intonations, and I remember clearly the way he tidied up the altar after Communion. I could see, and so I paid attention.
Nervous about public breastfeeding and a baby who might disturb people with her cries, John and I sat closer to the back on the side aisle when we were new parents. Early on, though, having read that kids would behave better if they could see what was going on, we made the move the the front and that’s all my kids have ever known.
This Passion Sunday, we arrived on the hilltop right at 11:30 to see crowds milling about on the sidewalk where no crowd should still have been at that time. Then I recognized the Bishop in the crowd and realized Confirmation was being celebrated. The candidates would be in our favorite pew, and their parents and other relatives would have come early to grab the other choice seats.
Sure enough, we ended up (on the left side, thankfully!) in one of the very last pews.
It was a strange experience. We couldn’t hear the Bishop (who is rather soft-spoken). Lorelei couldn’t see at all. William, at 6’2″, fared better, but still opined, “That was dreadful!” Both he and Lorelei said later that they couldn’t understand why anyone would choose to sit back there on purpose.
As for me, I spent most of the time watching the cute little kids around me, because apparently their parents keep them near the back in order to be able to escape with them quickly should they make noise. And likely because they cannot see anything and are bored and tired, they do make noise.
Sitting so far back, I didn’t feel like a full participant in the Mass. I felt like a spectator. “It was like being at a concert,” I said later. You know the kind–where the performer on stage could almost be anyone if there were no Jumbotron to display closeups.
Funnily enough, because it doesn’t happen often, I had tickets to an actual concert the following week. Kenny Rogers is on his farewell tour, and my sister Betsy had given tickets to my mother, Anne, and I for Christmas so we could all experience The Gambler’s Last Deal together.
It was an incredible evening. Not only were we treated to a behind-the-scenes chat with Kenny’s tour manager (Gene Roy, who’s been with him for 38 years), we got to go up on stage and get our pictures taken in Kenny’s chair, and then later we each exchanged a few words with Kenny before posing for commemorative photos with him.
And perhaps best of all, we were seated right in front of the stage for the performance. It was intimate. It was personal. When Kenny wanted to make eye contact with his audience, he was looking right at us. It wasn’t like being at a concert; it was almost like having a conversation.
We were sitting in the third row.
My sister paid extra for those up-close-and-personal seats. But you know what? The front pews are free on Sunday. They are free of charge, and most likely they are free of occupants.
Maybe sitting way in the back of church is your thing. Maybe you feel connected and can participate and pray just fine back there. I’m not here to tell you what to do.
But if you have little kids, I will GUARANTEE you that they don’t feel like a part of things when all they can see is the backs of grownups and while they are distracted by all the other kids in the last few pews doing what kids do when they are bored.
If you want your kids to be spectators at church, longing for Mass to be over so they can get their doughnuts, then stay in the back row. If you want them to be engaged in a relationship, come on down to the front.