ASK FATHER: Convert -“Should I do as my fellow Romans do?”

From a reader…


I am a recent convert to the Church from a Continuing Anglican Church.

I was a 45 year Anglo-Catholic.

I make what I consider to be the appropriate Signing and obeisances during the Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus qui venit, Elevations, etc. I am the only one to do so, that I can tell, in a NO parish of 400 to 500 on a given Sunday.

I also feel conspicuous because I sit near the front in a divided nave with pews facing inward and I am one of about a dozen, counting ushers, that wear coat and tie. Should I do as my fellow Romans do? I do, however, generally dress down for daily said Masses.

No one has said anything … yet … but I have heard stories about general disdain by some cradle Catholics leery of converts as being generally pretentious and too traditional. The last thing I want is to make folks uncomfortable but I feel the need to honor my Savior in the manner I have for over 4 decades.

I would very much appreciate your advise.


There was a time, for about 19 centuries, when the posture of the laity attending the Holy Mass was not the subject of universal legislation. There were customs, to be certain – and custom gains the force of law when it is practiced over a significant period of time (the current legislation allows for customs that have been in place for 30 years to obtain the force of law). But for the most part, during centuries of the Church’s life, the congregation was free to do pretty much whatever devotion, faith, piety, and human nature called them to do. Society did what society does and enforced certain taboos – if you’re going to smoke a cigarette during Mass, please step outside; standing up with hands outstretched and shouting “Hallelujah” during the Canon is frowned upon; gathering with your guild and praying a loud novena to St. Apollonia during the sermon would get you all a talking-to. If matters became particularly distracting or problematic, there was sometimes local legislation passed. The Bishops of Chartres issued several decrees up until the 18th century forbidding the Canons of the Cathedral from playing a game of ball (probably much like four-square) in the labyrinthine paving of the cathedral during the liturgy.

But now, we have rubrics covering the posture of the laity. And we have an increasing vigilance on the part of some in the Church to enforce those rubrics with a ferocity that would make Draco blush. Clergy and laity alike seem unwilling to tolerate even mild deviance from written and unwritten expectations of behavior on the part of their fellow worshipers.

My viewpoint, as a former layperson attending and as a current priest offering the Holy Mass is – as long as it isn’t distracting to others or offensive, or explicitly forbidden by the rubrics – go for it. Quod non prohibit, licet. As a spiritual director, if someone asked me about a particular practice, I would ask primarily about motive: why are you doing this (whatever *this* is)? Is it a genuine act of piety, or is it a plea for attention? If it is causing friction with fellow-parishioners, what is the cost-benefit analysis? In general, though, I’m all for a wide latitude in liturgical posturing by laity, out of respect for the majority of our tradition – and remember that the catholicity of the Church means that we extend both spatially and temporally. Let’s not fall subject to the tyranny of the present in our efforts to offer proper worship to Our Lord.

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  1. KateD says:

    We homeschool our children, but they play sports with kids who are educated in various manners. Last week some kids were playing while waiting for a game, and they invited our tween son to join them. He said, “sure, if you’ll lay off the profanity” and all agreed. It’s an awkward thing for a boy to do with a group of kids he doesn’t really know in a small town, especially when he’d really like to make friends with them. As they played, one kid fell backwards and hit his head hard on a metal bleacher step. It must have hurt like heck, and he understandably let out a cry of pain that sounded something like this, “fuuuuu….” And he stoped himself mid way and corrected himself, “fudge!” At another point a boy started to exclaim. “SHIiiiii….” And halfway through, he looked at my son and remembered their deal and changed the word coming out of his mouth to “shoot!”

    My son’s observation was that they really are nice kids, they just need to be reminded of the right way to act sometimes. He didn’t feel many were being given much direction in that regard from the adults in their lives.

    We are called, not to be like old schoolmarms scoldding others, but rather a levening to our brothers and sisters….and…As someone once said, sometimes we can accomplish that without even saying a word, but through the example of our own behavior. Catholics, sometimes need to be reminded how they should behave and Who they are before…often times they have not had a lot of direction in that regard. And our Church, unlike ANY other is infested with oppressed parishioners, because it IS the one established by Jesus Christ, Himself, and the hordes of Hell hated Him and they hate us who follow Him. They harrass and tempt and prod us like no other Christian community… if you’re getting scowled at? Good for you! It’s often a sign that you have stirred their consciences.

    I guess what I’m saying is, it’s okay to ruffle a few feathers….it seems somewhat par for the course when one is faithfully following Christ. Isn’t that the example He gave us to follow?

  2. BrionyB says:

    I’m quite curious to know what the “appropriate Signing and obeisances” are from an Anglo-Catholic perspective. For myself, I do genuflect during the Creed (one other lady does this too), kneel for the Sanctus/Agnus Dei and for the final blessing, bow my head for our Lord’s name, etc. I figure it does no one any harm, and is no more irregular than the people doing the “orans” position during the Our Father, or hi-fiving for the sign of peace!

    Happily, I’m not the only woman wearing a headcovering at my local NO church, as there’s a sizeable African population, and many of the ladies wear a hat or a headscarf/wrap of some kind. The lace mantilla is rare, but that was never universally worn anyway.

    Despite attempts to impose conformity of participation, my impression is that there’s significant diversity returning to our parishes, perhaps especially the multicultural inner-city ones (including signs of traditional reverence – I notice a fair number of people who genuflect before Communion and receive on the tongue, and guess many of them would happily receive kneeling if it were practical). It’s a good thing, in my opinion. One thing I like about the TLM is the acceptance of people participating in their own way, rather than attempting to enforce a uniform regime of sit/stand/speak/sing as though we were schoolchildren.

  3. Dave H says:

    My family and I are converts from protestantism (Episcopal) 3 years ago. We have accepted the teachings of the Church including the Real Presence. We live in a small town (pop 40k) in Indiana and at the only parish in town, no one acts as if the Eucharist is God. The pastor does not directly controvert this teaching, but almost no one approaches the Eucharist with deep reverence. My children are 8, 6, and 1 (thanks to the Church’s teaching on contraception) and they see hundreds of parishioners approach our Eucharistic Lord in a cavalier, almost indifferent, attitude and posture. I recognize that a 60 year old well-formed lay person can probably approach the Eucharist with an interior disposition of reverence in shorts, flip flops, sports jersey and receive Christ in the hand while standing (and even some extraordinary ministers might be able to wear shorts and flip flops at the altar and while distributing God’s body and blood) but I worry that these parishioners may give scandal to my children. I have come to believe that attending weekday Masses in our home town is potentially detrimental to my childrens’ eternal souls. Our current plan of action is to watch the daily Mass on the FSSP’s website ( and we go to a reverent NO parish one hour from home. They have a good, traditional priest and many parishioners (about 1/3) clearly believe in the Real Presence based on their attentiveness and clear devotion. My preference is to believe that the other 2/3 do also believe in our Eucharistic Lord, but they have been conditioned to believe that they do not need to be absolutely reverent with God’s body and blood—and this is what I tell my impressionable kids.

  4. Pius Admirabilis says:

    I have observed that TLM parishes are *much* more tolerating of different forms of adoration. Not everyone makes the sign of the Cross during Elevation, not everyone makes the sign of the Cross at the Benedictus, but no one cares what a person does. Only when I first attended the TLM and din’t make a genuflexion during the Creed, people looked at me funny (I made a profound bow, though).

    One time during a NO Mass (and that was my first time attending a NO Mass for over a year), I didn’t make certain signs, and I didn’t blabber the “Mysterium fidei”, and people took great offense at that. Multiple people after Mass asked me if I didn’t feel well or other similar questions. I just kept with the story that the heat was getting to me, and I was rather tired.

    Even though the NO has some rubrics governing the position and actions of the faithful, it is usually not seen with happiness if someone makes the sign of the Cross more than “necessary” (which is only at the beginning and at the blessing).

    My advice is: Just do what everyone else is doing if you want no trouble. Or keep doing those things, and be considered the weirdo.

  5. pbnelson says:

    Find a new parish!

    I’m a convert, too, and perhaps that gives me more of a pilgrim’s perspective than the typical cradle Catholic, but as far as I’m concerned, toleration of local mediocrity is one of the biggest follies in the Church today.

    If your bishop puts his best, most solid, faithful and orthodox priests into the remotest parishes with the humblest churches – go there! Drive an hour! It’s nothing! Support traditionalist priests and communities. You’ll be happier, far, far happier. So much happier!

    And your support will pay dividends. Don’t just go along to get along, be the change you want to see, as the liberals say (Ghandi, heh). I look forward to the day when squishy priests will have to *pretend* to be orthodox just to survive. And you know what? in acting the part they will find themselves unwittingly sanctified, becoming the priests God always intended them to be. Hasten the day! Starve the unworthy and feed the blessed.

    And, I’m sorry to say this, but your ill-formed fellow parishioners are not about to change. They aren’t inspired by your example, they are scandalized by it. You challenge their complacency, and they resent it. They are already setting to work on you. If you would devote your life to a painful spiritual martyrdom then by all means stay put. And God be with you, because most people in your situation will regress, IMHO.

    When I decided to converted 12 years ago I was in a crisis. The local RCIA was sheer liberal hogwash. In desperation I asked Fr. Z. for advice on where to find a solid RCIA. God bless him, he replied with a recommendation, but he advised toughing it out. And I did. And since then I’ve seen him give the same advice to others in the same circumstances. And considering what he personally suffered in seminary, I feel like a wuss for griping about the trivialities I endured. But you know, in the end, I regretted it.

    After six months of grumbling at RCIA and a few years of grumbling at every mass I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was spiritual slow poison and it was going to destroy the faith of my family. After every mass I felt obliged to rebut the homily, for all love! What a miserable position to put my family in, and myself.

    Recognizing the toxicity of that kind of faith, we left that parish and began commuting to the same great parish that enlivened Fr. Z. in his terrible trials. A journey far enough that it meant my family would spend all day on Sunday just going to mass. It was intolerable. Not! We loved it! The only reason we stopped going there was to support a great and solid priest who finally replaced the former squishy. Incidentally, that squishy has since been removed from ministry. I was not wrong!

    And do you know what happened to all the liberals at that parish, as soon as the new priest started giving homilies against same-sex unions, for Latin, against abortion, for confession, etc., etc.? Yep, they left! Because libs won’t put up with traditionalism even as they advise traditionalists to faithfully tolerate their innovations. Double standard? Yeah, no kidding.

    So, look, you can kneel in disgrace, or you can drive farther to mass. Don’t make my mistake and try toughing it out for a few years. In my case it was (at least in part) the sin of pride: kneeling, bowing, and willing my fellow parishioners to wake up and be more like me, confident I could convert them by force of example, and not the other way around. It was so seductive; I didn’t have to grow spiritually because I was surrounded by people who were my inferiors. Or so I supposed, and it was in many cases undeniably true, but also with great exceptions. You have to realize… the slow poison was at work. I felt bad about that attitude, but what was I supposed to do, regress for the sake of fitting in? Disobey the rubrics? Pretend an ugly mass was beautiful? It was a deeply painful time.

    The solution was to go somewhere that enriched us spiritually. We switched to a parish where our fellow parishioners were showing *us* how to worship, and making *us* squirm in the pews, rather than the reverse. Oh, so much healthier. Trust me, as a recent convert, that’s what you need. After twelve years, it’s still what I need. Deep down don’t you agree?

    p.s. I wrote something similar on Rod Dreher’s blog a week ago. Cross post:

  6. MGL says:

    BrionyB, I expect the “appropriate signing and obeisances” are similar to those found in the Ordinariate’s Divine Worship, which is very similar to the Latin Mass, but in hieratic English, and with the congregation making the responses reserved to the servers in the TLM. Among these signs:

    – Bow at the name of Jesus and at the Glory Be.
    – Bow of the head at the name of Mary.
    – In the Gloria, bow at “we worship thee” and “receive our prayer”, sign of the Cross at “art most high”.
    – In the Creed, genuflect at “and was incarnate by”, sign of the Cross at “and the Life of the world to come”.
    – In the Sanctus, bow until “Blessed is he”, at which point make the sign of the Cross.
    – Sign of the Cross at the Elevations and at “Behold the Lamb of God”.
    – Strike the breast at “worthy” for the threefold “Lord, I am not worthy”.
    – Genuflect at “and the Word was made flesh” in the Last Gospel.

    I’ve probably missed a few, but you get the idea. Since we switched to an Ordinariate parish a few years ago, I’ve only attended the Novus Ordo a few times while traveling, but I certainly use some of the less obtrusive of these gestures, most especially bowing the head at the Name of Jesus, which I believe should become common practice once again. Bodily gestures and other such acts of piety remind you of the true object of worship, and their absence from the Novus Ordo is a great loss.

  7. ex seaxe says:

    The NO Missal introduction says bow the head at 1. The names of the three persons of the Trinity, when given together 2. the name of Jesus 3. the name of Mary 4. the name of the saint of the day if mentioned during the Canon. In the text of the Missal a bow of the body is indicated in the Creed at “and was incarnate …” and striking the breast is indicated at “through my fault …”. There are other bows of the body, but while they clearly apply to the (con)celebrant(s), who is/are standing, they don’t quite work for those who are kneeling. Somewhere it says, I think, turn towards the Gospel while it is read. So the Novus Ordo is not totally without such elements. Unfortunately few people are aware of these directives.
    I seem to recall being told that an armed knight should draw his sword during the creed, as a sign of his readiness to defend the faith (or was that for the Gospel?).

  8. One of my favorite things about the traditional Mass is that there is no set program for the laity in the pews. It is restful for me not to be expected to be in a state of constant busyness. It allows me to be recollected. The priest does all the heavy lifting. Well, Jesus does all the heavy lifting, in the person of the priest. And this is why the priest’s words and gestures are strictly controlled: it takes his personality out of the equation. It underscores Whose act the Mass really is.

    With the new Mass, on the other hand, the laity are driven like cattle through a noisy, strictly-regimented obstacle course, while the priest in the sanctuary (or out of the sanctuary, as the mood drives him) does whatever the hell he wants, until we can barely recognize the August Sacrifice through his clown act. And this is what the liberals call the Golden Age of the Laity!

  9. Shonkin says:

    Father Z makes a very good point asking about the motive for bowing, kneeling, etc. (Is it reverence or is it a plea for attention?)
    I find it handy to bring a missal. Even if I know all the responses by heart, it’s a way to avoid the hand-holding and all the macarena-type gestures that lay people seem to have invented during the Seventies and Eighties, and which still infest the NO Mass. (I keep my hands busy holding the missal.)
    In my parish there’s a huge difference between the Saturday evening vigil Mass and the Sunday morning one. The choir is a different one, and that helps. At the vigil Mass the music is mostly traditional hymns and the Psalm is verbatim from the lectionary. On Sunday morning the music is more suitable for a night club — when it isn’t the 1970’s trash hymns — and instead of the Psalm we get a song from Oregon Catholic Press collection that is loosely based on the Psalm. I avoid the Sunday morning Mass whenever I can.
    Our church has no pews, and therefore kneelers are rare. However, our pastor has procured a good supply of kneelers that the elderly and infirm can pick up on their way in and put back when they leave. (I’m only 72, so I’m able to kneel on the floor without difficulty after Communion.)
    Now, if the choir would just please SHUT UP during Communion, or at least stop pressuring us to stand up and sing along when we’d rather be saying quiet prayers to our Lord…

  10. TomG says:

    Anita Moore: so well said! Our FSSP parish (National Shrine of St. Alphonsus Liguori in Baltimore) is heaven on earth, in part for the various reasons you mention.

  11. MrsMacD says:

    I’ve been thinking about this statement for a while, “Culture has the force of law.”

    So, when the missionaries came and converted the Natives, they dressed and acted like them?

    I would like to put forward the argument that our Catholic culture has been damaged, wounded, lost, even abandoned and needs to be revived. I went to an ordination a few years ago, the church was ugly the liturgy wasn’t great but not the worst I’ve seen and the ushers were dressed up and welcomed us with smiling faces, it made me feel welcome in an unfamiliar environment. We need to raise the bar.

  12. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    Culture does not have the force of law, custom can gain the force of law, if practiced by the Catholic community for thirty uninterrupted years with the purpose of binding the community to that custom.

    In coming to a place inhabited by non-Christians, missionaries often look at the local customs and see what, if any, can be safely adopted by the Christians. Some might even become typical practices of the Christian community. The missionaries to China adopted the Ji-Jin, for example, instead of the biretta, and were even given permission to utilize it during the Holy Sacrifice itself, not just in choro. Eventually, this gained the force of law, until the recent liturgical changes wiped that all away…

  13. Sword40 says:

    I agree with Anita Moore. I, too, attend an FSSP parish. It’s true there are NO rubrics for the laity. There are customs that most follow but not all and that’s OK too. I use a missal and like to follow closely the Mass but that is MY preference. I used to follow along singing with the choir but my voice has collapsed as I aged. I try to sit close to the front as I can and only look back when the procession begins. I am always amazed at how full the church has become.

  14. TonyO says:

    and custom gains the force of law when it is practiced over a significant period of time (the current legislation allows for customs that have been in place for 30 years to obtain the force of law).

    Culture does not have the force of law, custom can gain the force of law, if practiced by the Catholic community for thirty uninterrupted years with the purpose of binding the community to that custom.

    It is important to remember that (as far as I understand it, someone correct me if this is wrong), custom cannot gain the force of law if the custom is actually contrary to existing law, even if the custom is practiced for 30 years. This is particularly so if the law regards a matter of principle or something that cannot be changed by a human lawmaker (such as matters governed by natural law or positive divine law.)

    While Fr. Z is correct about the fairly blase position of lay posture and gesture at Mass for much of the period before the 20th century, it is no longer true and hasn’t been for a LOT longer than 30 years. So, just for example, the US Church had the custom of kneeling at or after the Agnus Dei, and the US bishops requested that the general norm for the Latin Church (to stand) not apply to the US, and that adjustment was approved by Rome. So, while it is perfectly fine when American tourists in Rome stand (after all, when in Rome, do as the Romans do), but it is not perfectly fine for the same American tourists, when they come back to the States, to stand after the Agnus Dei merely because “that’s the universal norm of the Latin Church”, or because “hey, the Church used to be fairly blase about this stuff.”

    Charity suggests that when your fellow parishioners don’t know the norms that apply to them, you can, quietly, and subtley, follow the norms and do the prescribed gesture, and then TEACH them when they ask you about it, but not to SHOUT their ignorance in their faces by being obvious about it. It is perfectly possible to strike the breast with very limited movements. It is perfectly possible to bow without flamboyance. I don’t think it is necessary to “do what the locals do” when they are doing so out of ignorance and disregard for the reasons underlying the norms / rubrics.

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