This weekend, as you listen to the Gospel, take note that when Jesus used courtesy rituals of his time, “When you are invited … go and take the lowest place,” to illustrate a Gospel point, little did he realize that we Catholics would take it to such heart. It is a long standing joke, “Catholics love the back pews of the church!”
Some people who enter our church building indeed do so with a sense of humility and select pews in the back because they feel unworthy to be up front, close and personal to the liturgy. Others choose the back pews as a less disturbing spot to corral little ones, or because of the more direct location to a restroom or the parking lot.
The early Christian churches were homes, and seating was restricted to whatever might be at hand. As the house church gave way to worship in larger buildings, churches still did not contain pews. For almost 1,000 years congregations stood for the liturgy.
Pews came into use around the 13th Century, beginning with stone benches that were placed along the church walls. Until the Protestant Reformation in 1517, most pews were not fixed to the floor.
As the use of pews became more common, a jostling among people for pew position began to take place. However, it was not the last pew they were vying for, but rather the first! Perhaps this movement is more reflective of today’s Gospel, people wanted the first pew as a way to indicate their wealth or prominence in the community. Remember also, amplifying systems did not exist for many centuries, if one wanted to hear what was going on, one needed to be in the front.
Eventually worshipers “purchasing” their pew settled this discord. Different locations carried different prices, with the most desirable locations being the most expensive. If front pews were not available, one rented a back pew, but continued to “pay up” as pews opened closer to the front.
If you worship in an older building, take time to glance at the end of your pew. Besides the carving of a cross or other religious design, you may find a metal number or perhaps even a small bracket that may have held a name card. These were used to designate what pew “belonged” to whom.
Since the early 1950’s the concept of pew rent has been set aside. A variety of pew configurations exist in Catholic churches, each trying to best serve the worship needs of the community. In churches in our diocese you will find front to back; semicircular; or even choir style (people facing one another). In some places, the pew is a simple stacking chair and in others it is a long, solid wood beauty with an elaborately carved end.
When we recently did a remodel at my parish the pews were removed for refurbishing. A great deal of history was uncovered, from old coins between joints, to rogue pieces of “under the seat chewing gum,” to carved initials, to a first Communion rosary hidden between the cracks, and returned intact, to its owner 60-some years later! The church pew no longer serves as a harbinger of social status, ethnic origin or spiritual worthiness. However, too often front pews remain unused, and if you close your eyes, you can hear Jesus calling “Hello, anybody there? There is lots of room up here in front!”
Zahorik is pastoral associate at Most Blessed Sacrament Parish, Oshkosh.