A few years ago, I visited my friend Elizabeth in Tennessee and we went to Mass together on a bright January morning. It was a beautiful Mass and afterwards I remarked to Elizabeth, as a new visitor to the parish, how kind and friendly the parishioners were.
“Welcome home, ma’am,” an older gentleman greeted me as I entered the door of the church. During the sign of peace, one lady leaned over and thanked me for coming to “our church home” with a friendly smile.
After Mass, as I was enthusiastically sharing my new appreciation for Southern hospitality, Elizabeth chuckled and remarked, “Oh, we are all friendly honey, until someone sits in our pew!” We both burst out laughing and then stopped ourselves because, as funny as this sounds, it is also unfortunately true. I have personally experienced being a newcomer to Mass and being reminded by a parishioner that I am sitting in their pew. It was a painful and embarrassing experience. But the vast majority of times that I have gone to Mass, I have found the sentiment “Midwest nice” to be true of parishes throughout the Midwest.
While I certainly appreciate routine as much as anyone else, it’s so easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to our spiritual lives, isn’t it? With so many of us making New Year’s resolutions now, this is a great time to assess our spiritual health and try new things in our faith lives. That also goes for where we sit on Sunday.
Whether you sit in the same pew each week or sit somewhere different, I have a New Year’s challenge for you. Consider this your “New Year, New Pew, New You” challenge.
Here’s how it goes. Spiritually adopt the pew that you pray in, whether you sit there regularly or not. By this I mean, three things specifically:
- Pray for the people in the pew. Remembering that there are those who attend daily Mass or go to Mass at a different time than you, spiritually adopt “your” pew as a place of prayer for those who have sat there or who will sit there during the week. Include in your thoughts and prayers all those who will sit in this sacred space and offer their intentions up to the Lord, who knows the deepest desires of our hearts.
- Look for those who are new. Consciously ask, “Who’s new to the pew?” every time you sit in your pew. Make an effort to smile, introduce yourself (if possible) and during the sign of peace, be especially effuse and gracious. Making a newcomer feel welcome at Mass is good for everyone, but can be especially comforting for those who are lonely, hurting or struggling.
- Embrace the middle of the pew. I understand that there are valid and important reasons why people like to sit at the end of the pew. It is convenient for those who are more elderly, for those who have children and also those who have disabilities, for example. Many years ago, a friend of mine shared with me that she experienced periodic bouts of claustrophobia and had to sit at the end of the pew in the event that she experienced a panic attack and had to leave quickly and quietly.
These are all very understandable reasons for embracing the end of the pew as a permanent place of prayer. But for those of us who “just like to sit at the end of a pew” for convenience, in this New Year, try to “scoot in” and make room for new people to love and pray beside. Trust me, as a mom of three little children, I am always thankful for those who take the time to do this out of love and concern for others!
So that’s it, the “New Year, New Pew, New You” challenge. Give it a try — you just might make a new friend at Mass. Better yet, you might gain a whole new perspective on Mass in the New Year!
Stanz is director of Discipleship and Leadership Development for the Diocese of Green Bay.