Catholic mass etiquette for non-Catholics?
April 2, 2006 8:52 AM   Subscribe

I'm attending a Catholic funeral in a couple of days. I'm not Catholic. I know that I shouldn't take communion or recite the Nicene Creed, but what about the rest of the service? Do I stand and kneel when everybody else does, or do I stay seated? What's the proper etiquette for the whole affair?
posted by waldo to Religion & Philosophy (42 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Generally follow what everyone else is doing, to the limits of your own comfort. I've been in similar situations at weddings and the like, and just stood (or sat) there politely whilst all the prayers and songs were going on. Got pretty boring after a while, but I didn't want to spoil my friends' day by walking out...

Don't think that there's any real etiquette apart from politeness, couteousness and sympathy...
posted by Chunder at 8:56 AM on April 2, 2006

Be respectful, don't make a big thing about your non-catholicism. Hands behind back or clasped in front. Stand and sit with others, but don't kneel.
All this from an atheist in a largely catholic country.
posted by signal at 8:57 AM on April 2, 2006

As a (terrible) Catholic, my advice would be to stand, sit, and kneel when others do. Many Catholic churches have done away with the kneeling and favor standing during those parts now, and if you don't wish to kneel, many people who don't want to for whatever reason (comfort, ability, etc.), kind of scooch way forward in the pew and keep their head down.
posted by ferociouskitty at 8:57 AM on April 2, 2006

Yeah, the drill is pretty much: stand and sit with everyone else, don't kneel, sit there awkwardly when everyone goes to get communion, feel weird when they ask you to shake hands with the people around you.
posted by CunningLinguist at 9:00 AM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

What's weird about shaking hands with the people around you?
posted by mmascolino at 9:04 AM on April 2, 2006

I joined the church a few years ago, and went through the RCIA (basically an intro to the Catholic church for adults). When everyone goes to get communion, it's much easier (both for you, since it's less awkward, and for everybody else, since they aren't tripping over you) to go up with everybody else, and place your right hand (or both hands, forming an X) against your chest when you approach the priest. This is a sign that you want a blessing rather than communion, and anybody is welcome to receive a blessing whether they are Catholic or not.

For the rest of the service, standing, sitting, and kneeling when everybody else does the same is the usual protocol.
posted by gwenzel at 9:05 AM on April 2, 2006

I'm no longer a Catholic, so I used to do everything. I now just do everything except communion. I never heard about not reciting the Nicene creed.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:10 AM on April 2, 2006

Don't go up there, BTW. Just sit when they go by. They understand fully and respect you for not taking communion.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:10 AM on April 2, 2006

gwenzel's advice is true. I was raised (by agnostic parents) in a Catholic school, so did the crossing arms thing a couple of times a month.

All the usual atheist-at-a-religious-service rules apply: don't pray, don't sing along, just sit there like a dummy and wait for it to be over. Of course, YMMV.
posted by tommorris at 9:22 AM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I never heard about not reciting the Nicene creed.

It's an affirmation of the Catholic faith. If not Catholic, then reciting it is a little silly. :)
posted by waldo at 9:24 AM on April 2, 2006

As a non-Catholic who went to Catholic high school, I agree with those who recommend standing and sitting with the rest of the congregation but remaining seated during communion. Believe me, practicing Catholics will respect and understand your decision.

Not to derail, but has anyone ever been told that there have been unexplained deaths in cases of non-Catholics taking communion? I remember back in high school a priest recounting stories of people who weren't Catholic dying after they took communion. I always suspected it was a story told to keep non-Catholics away from the sacrament. Anyone else ever hear this? Any confirmed stories of this actually occurring?

Just curious.
posted by EmuBite at 9:31 AM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: There is a good chance that you will not be the only non-Catholic in the audience. When I went to a Catholic wedding of a good friend, the priest actually explained to the audience, before everyone took communion, about the crossed arm-X thing. I opted not to go up anyhow, and was one of about 20 people to do that. Generally, especially with funerals, people expect people of different faiths and/or belief systems to be in attendance. Otherwise you can just stand and kneel like everyone else. Generally at big events like this, people feel their own differences more sharply than anyone around them notices them.
posted by jessamyn at 9:40 AM on April 2, 2006

Response by poster: As I'm family of the deceased, I'll be sitting in the front, so I won't have the opportunity to observe what everybody else in the church is doing.
posted by waldo at 9:53 AM on April 2, 2006

You might want to either kneel when everyone else does or else scooch way forward in your seat at those times. The Catholic kneeling behind your you will appreciate not having to stick his or her nose in your hair/scalp at those times.
posted by leftcoastbob at 9:53 AM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: Don't line up for communion. You'll feel awkward, and there's always the chance that whoever is giving out communion will be on autopilot and notice any crossed-arms signal (which this lifelong Catholic has never heard of, by the way!) The church will have plenty of non- and lapsed-Catholics who'll be sat in their seats too, not to mention parents too busy wrangling small kids to go up there. Nobody will need to trip over you if you get up with the row and stand at the end of the pew until everyone has filed out.

As for reciting the creed, I'd suggest not reciting anything. Again, you won't stand out. Unless churches in the US are markedly different to those in Ireland, there will be plenty of tired elderly people, sullen teens, and rare mass-goers who'll be doing the barely perceptible mutter.
posted by jamesonandwater at 10:12 AM on April 2, 2006

No longer a Catholic, but I'd say follow the lead of the congregation's posture to the limits with which you are comfortable. If you're really uncomfortable with kneeling, sit in the back row and you won't impede anyone else.

You don't need to say the prayers or the congregational responses. Use the kneeling etc. as an opportunity to recall the deceased kindly and to think positively for the bereaved.
posted by plinth at 10:14 AM on April 2, 2006

Best answer: Another thought in the interest of general maneuvering: If the pews are cramped or the layout of the church is unwieldy, you can get up and exit the pew like everyone else, stand back as they get in line, and return to your seat.

My non-Catholic father attended Mass with my family for over 20 years, did much of what's described in previous responses, and no one ever batted an eye.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:16 AM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I attended a Catholic high school -- I was raised Protestant. I agree with what everyone has said about standing, sitting, kneeling along with the folks next to you. The one time I tried to do the cross-armed thing up at Communion, the nun looked at me like I was nuts. I guess she hadn't heard of it either. So from then on, I stayed in my seat. It's probably your best bet, unless the priest specifically mentions it.
posted by jdl at 10:34 AM on April 2, 2006

Yes, just follow what others are doing but if you're not baptised Catholic then please resist touching the holy water upon entering the church. You'll notice the Catholics immerse their fingers and then touch their foreheads as both purifying themselves upon entering the house of God and also as a respectful nod to their baptisms.
posted by GoodJob! at 10:39 AM on April 2, 2006

I think it's a matter of choice. I had an amusing experience of this issue a few years back when my fellow atheist friend married an Irish Catholic. The wedding was in a very traditional church in Cork and the split across the aisle was pretty total. Her side: staunch catholics. His side:heathens and atheists.

The result was a (to me) hilarious study in social division. Her side was doing the usual ritualistic dancing; up and down, on their knees, crossing themselves all the usual voodoo nonsense... meanwhile on his side we just stood or sat and looked over in varying degrees of amusement or puzzlement. It was kinda like a day at the zoo.

If you're an atheist, I don't think you should take part in any of the overt god-bothering - praying, kneeling, etc. It'd actually be sort of dishonest to do so. When they're praying, just sit down and stay silent. Well, that's what I've always done in these situations and it's never been a problem. You should never feel compelled to act dishonestly by the beliefs of others or by social, cultural or other group pressure.
posted by Decani at 10:39 AM on April 2, 2006

wait a second... i thought non-catholics were not allowed to take communion per catholic dogma?

you know, because you're supposed to be sin-free at the time that you receive communion (i.e. you've just been to confession), and non-catholics don't do that?
posted by joeblough at 11:00 AM on April 2, 2006

[also, whenever i hear "Nicene Creed" i immediately think of Pavement and how they referred to themselves as "Nicene Creeders" on one of their albums... cracks me up every time.]
posted by joeblough at 11:01 AM on April 2, 2006

waldo, just fyi, if you are close family of the deceased, you may be asked to take part in the initial procession, or in the presentation of the gifts (another procession down the aisle, where layfolk bring the wine, etc. to the priest).

In the rare case where I'm in the congregation for a mass, I do the arms-crossed thing for communion. I sit instead of kneeling. I do not sing or recite anything, but I often read along in the book out of interest. When passing the altar, I do not stop and bow, but I do nod my head in respect. This is as a former Catholic who left the church many years ago.
posted by Sangre Azul at 11:02 AM on April 2, 2006

Waldo, I had the same problem with sitting up front during a family member's very very Catholic funeral. Don't worry. You'll pick up when to stand and when to sit from peripheral vision, other people in your row and also the priest, who is likely to cue the congregation.
There was no problem with me not kneeling or taking communion - especially at funerals, as others have said, it's assumed there will be heathens there.
I'm surprised at the people telling you to kneel though. That's something I'll not do, simply because it seems to involve sort of prostration before the deity. And if I'm not going to pray, I'm not getting on my knees. Standing and sitting though - that's just politeness.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:05 AM on April 2, 2006

Oh yeah, I had to do the gifts thing, but again, the priest tells you what to do. No biggie.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:06 AM on April 2, 2006

I remember back in high school a priest recounting stories of people who weren't Catholic dying after they took communion.

The nuns told us about a guy who spit out his host and took it home and stuck it with a pin, and it gushed blood.

I puked after communion once, and a robed priest came outside and picked the white bits out and put them in a gold chalice.
posted by StickyCarpet at 11:08 AM on April 2, 2006

Response by poster: I should mention that I was raised Catholic. I'm entirely familiar with the entire process for those in the faith. But as I am not Catholic now, and have not been for well over a decade, the mystery to me is how to attend mass as a non-Catholic neither cheapen the faith by participating in rituals that are not meaningful to me nor being rude. The advice in this thread so far is very helpful, though I think it'll be even more helpful for non-Catholics who will later read it to learn how to attend mass.

Meeting is so much easier than mass: sit down, say nothing, do nothing. :)
posted by waldo at 11:12 AM on April 2, 2006

Just wanted to mention that if someone was non-Catholic, but a practising Protestant (especially of the Lutheran or Anglican variety) or Orthodox, it would be appropriate to say the Nicene Creed.

The Nicene Creed is an affirmation of Catholic belief, but it is also an affirmation of the beliefs of many varieties of Christianity.

There is that pesky Filioque Clause, though!
posted by Gnatcho at 11:16 AM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I puked after communion once, and a robed priest came outside and picked the white bits out and put them in a gold chalice.

Please tell me you're kidding.

posted by CunningLinguist at 12:10 PM on April 2, 2006

I find it interesting that so many people here are former Catholics.

I'm currently a Catholic, and on the back of our missalette it says that non-Catholic Christians who believe in Eucharist can participate in Communion. Here's a link. The whole document is interesting, but "Other Christians and Communion" is what we're talking about.

Waldo - CunningLinguist is right, you'll pick things up by watching the priest. For the most part, when he stands, you stand. There are a few exceptions, like when he gives his homily and when he comes forward to receive the Communal gifts, but that's when you also see what others in your pew are doing. Hopefully you'll be able to sit just adjacent to a practicing Catholic who you can "cheat" off of. There's an exact guide here.

I'm very sorry for your loss.
posted by MeetMegan at 12:40 PM on April 2, 2006

The wonderful book How To Be A Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook discusses this. You can go to Amazon, go to "Search Inside" and search for [Roman Catholic Funeral] and get all the details (pp. 307-309). A quick summary:

"Guests are expected to stand with the other mourners. It is optional for them to kneel, read prayers aloud, and sing with the congregation."


"[non Catholic] guests should not receive communion or say any prayers contradictory to the beliefs of their own faith."

[A quick plug for the book. It is an amazingly useful, thoughtful book. It provides a lot of practical information for dealing with religious events (birth, death, wedding, holidays, etc) for just about every major religion.]
posted by i love cheese at 12:53 PM on April 2, 2006 [2 favorites]

I tend to think about what, specifically, I'm being asked to do at the time and make a decision on that. Sitting is usually just about listening. Standing is often about showing respect to the priest or joining in community. Kneeling is about prayer. Repeating stuff is usually about prayer, too.

I'm willing to show respect, join in community and listen, so I'm fine with the sitting and standing and the hand-shaking. I don't kneel or repeat stuff because I'm not Catholic AND not religious so I don't do prayer even at a general level. Obviously, I don't take communion.

If you're not Catholic but are some other form of Christian or some other religion, you might be fine with the kneeling and issuing your own appropriate prayers. You might or might not be willing to repeat stuff depending on how closely the prayers mirror your own beliefs. You're not welcome to take communion (unless you're Eastern Orthodox or such that it's allowable).
posted by jacquilynne at 2:05 PM on April 2, 2006

As another former-Catholic, I'd advise what many have said and just join in when you feel comfortable. Not going up with everyone to receive communion is a non-issue as people will just assume rightly, that the reason why you're not going up is that you're a non-Catholic...
posted by ob at 2:08 PM on April 2, 2006

wait a second... i thought non-catholics were not allowed to take communion per catholic dogma?

This is correct, but in practical terms, there isn't much to prevent a non-Catholic from receiving communion. It's not like you have to show the official ID card before they hand you the wafer or the cup.

As to the saying of the creeds, this just isn't something that's likely to come up. If you're not Catholic, you're generally not going to know what the wording is anyway, so you either mumble incomprehensibly or just don't say anything. Nobody is going to bat an eye either way.
posted by gwenzel at 2:09 PM on April 2, 2006

I'm atheist, and I attended a Catholic funeral this last December for the grandmother of my wife. I sat up and down with the rest of the congregation, but didn't kneel - I also didn't receive communion. No one said anything, nor did they even look at me weird. As a side note, this was in the Philippines, perhaps the most Catholic country in the world, so I imagine that if this works there, it will work anywhere.

I did, however, on the request of the mother-in-law, sprinkle holy water on the casket. I wouldn't have done this otherwise.
posted by thewittyname at 2:12 PM on April 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

As mentioned above, and in my church at least, on the back of the song/prayer books there's sometimes a guide for non-catholics. Many people don't go up for communion, and people won't think much of it.
posted by drezdn at 6:03 PM on April 2, 2006

Yeah, if you're an Atheist, it's a bit much to recite the Niocene Creed, since you don't believe in it. I'd say just stand when eveyone else does, sit when everyone kneels, and just generally look respectful. It's quite common for people from outside of a church to attend a funeral, so it's not like no one will have ever seen this before.
posted by unreason at 6:48 PM on April 2, 2006

Well, if you are a former Catholic and are attending the service in a church where the eucharistic ministers or priest once knew you as Catholic (and may not be aware that you left), you may want to sit out for communion.

The last funeral I attended was at my former church and the minister (who had known me when I was a child) was rather flustered that I only wanted a blessing. It was only a fraction of a second, but a little awkward.
posted by Sangre Azul at 7:04 PM on April 2, 2006

According to their own dogma, a priest can tell you not to take communion, but he can't actually refuse you. But I don't think there is any reason to make a priest or anyone else uncomfortable. At least not about their in-house rituals.

I would go with your own comfort level. Personally, I might kneal, but I wouldn't cross myself; I'd just bow my head respectfully. But it's up to you.
posted by gesamtkunstwerk at 8:47 PM on April 2, 2006

Presbyterian who grew up in a majority Roman Catholic city (NOLA) and was married to an RC. I've probably been to almost as many RC masses as Presby services. I always skip the holy water when entering, stand when everyone else stands, scoot to the front of the pew when there is kneeling (mostly because it's easier on the knees) and file out of the pew when everyone goes for communion but don't go to the front. There are always a few of us, no one much notices and, if anything, it's taken as respect for their religion by those who do notice. If you are Christian but not RC I think there is no problem with saying the Nicene Creed if you feel the need. It only mentions the catholic (universal) church not the Roman Catholic Church. My understanding is that it is the equivalent of the Apostles Creed recited in protestant churches (could be wrong). Don't sweat it.
posted by Carbolic at 9:06 PM on April 2, 2006

It looks like this question has been pretty thoroughly answered, but I'd like to add something that I've seen happen a few times at weddings and the like.

Catholics and Protestants recite the Lord's Prayer is slightly different ways. In a Mass a Catholic priest recites a short phrase between the prayer and the doxology, as opposed to (YMMV) Protestants who run the prayer and the doxology into one recitation.

A few times I've heard Protestants at a Mass continue right on through the doxology while that Catholics have paused, causing a bit of confusion.
posted by turbodog at 1:07 PM on April 3, 2006

Response by poster: I attended the funeral and followed the advice given here, only sitting and standing during the service. Nobody gawked (I think; I was in the third row and there were hundreds of people behind me, and I couldn't see them, of course), I got no hairy eyeball. When I took up the gifts I knew that it would be OK not to genuflect afterwards. It all went fine.

Thanks, folks.
posted by waldo at 7:58 AM on April 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

« Older Where to have my oil paintings printed?   |   Help me work from home on my Mac! Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.