Staying focused on Mass

The ring of a cell phone, cry of an infant parishioner, or medical emergency are unintended distractions that can often drive away the focus from the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that "to set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart, for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve" (2729).

During his very first Easter celebration as a priest, Father Jeremy Rodrigues, director of the Dioces of Providence Office of Worship, witnessed a parishioner suddenly collapse to the floor. Out of concern, the congregation's focus quickly turned from the Mass to the ailing parishioner.

"I was just at the end of my homily and someone just passed out," he recalled. "I thought, 'maybe it was it something I said.'"

As many attended to the needs of the parishioner, Father Rodrigues felt that it was appropriate to regain their spiritual attention and continue with the celebration of the liturgy.

"We can continue as long as it's addressed," he said. "It doesn't do the congregation any good to sit there and it becomes mass hysteria. The best thing we can do is pray for them and the Mass is the best prayer we can offer."

Providence Director of Vocations Father Michael Najim said that in cases like this, the priest trusts that the people in the congregation can best respond to such situations, adding that there are often several nurses and even doctors who are present at Mass.

"My experience is that the trained professionals are very good and very competent at handling these situations when they arise during the liturgy," he said. "It is appropriate for the Mass to continue. It's not that the priest is being insensitive. He can assess the situation to make sure it's being dealt with, but then he can continue."

Regarding minor medical episodes such as fainting during Mass, there is no overall rule, said diocesan chancellor Father Timothy Reilly, other than the priest's own common sense and pastoral tact, to guide his response to such emergencies.

"It's a balance between showing sensitivity and attention, and demonstrating calm for the other Mass attendees," he said. "Generally, while the Mass should not be interrupted, most priests would want to approach the pew, to show compassion and concern for the sick person. Usually, others offer help before Father even comes down from the sanctuary anyway."

After assuring parishioners that "help is on the way," Father Reilly shared that most priests would then return to the altar and continue the Mass. When medical assistance does arrive in the church, the priest might quietly acknowledge and thank them.

"At that point, everyone would be a bit distracted from the Mass anyway," he explained. "Certainly, every parish has experienced these types of temporary interruption with no disrespect shown - either to the afflicted person or to the Mass."

Even the most natural distractions like a crying baby might demand greater focus and patience from other parishioners. Father Thomas O'Neill, pastor emeritus of St. Mary Church, West Warwick, RI, said that 90 percent of the time when a child cries loudly during Mass, they either need to be fed or have their diaper changed. Father O'Neil suggests that parents of young children sit in cry rooms. A cry room is intended to serve as a temporary option for parents to retreat to when they feel that their little ones might start to disrupt the Mass.

"It's an opportunity for charity," said Father O'Neill, noting that worshipers need to be tolerant and charitable when a young child becomes agitated during Mass. He added that he has never asked parents to remove or not to bring a child to Mass.

"The community can find ways to work with it," he said.

St. Philip Church in Greenville, RI has the largest cry room in the state, fit to hold 50-70 people, said Father Rodrigues. Some parishioners feel embarrassed when their children cry at Mass, but from his perspective as a priest, it's a sign of youth and joy.

"It's beautiful when the babies are there," he shared. "The cry room is more for the family than the babies. Sometimes I even see people in there with no children, they just prefer it."

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When trying to ignore distractions, most important is that the priest remember what he is there for – to offer the sacrifice of the Mass.

"At that moment that should be the most important priority," said Father Rodrigues. "The greatest gift of the Mass is supposed to be an other worldly experience in the midst of everyday life."

Parishioners are more easily distracted because they are not as immediately involved in the Mass as the priest is so they have to concentrate even harder on the prayers of the sacrament despite distractions from the pews.

"They need to recognize what is taking place in the church and that takes practice," he said. "It takes a trained mind and heart to understand what is taking place at Mass. It's an act of prayer not just an event that we come to see or witness."

Posted with permission from The Rhode Island Catholic, official newspaper for the Diocese of Providence.

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