I remember being told, as a child growing up in Catholic schools, that it was a sin to be deliberately distracted in church. This meant looking around, or even worse, looking at people, and worst of all, talking to people. Imagine! Paying attention to other members of the Body of Christ, baptized people in whom Christ dwells! Today such exaggerated concerns are largely gone. Indeed, the Roman rite of the Mass even invites people to speak to one another at the sign of peace.
Concern for silence and attention during the liturgy is based upon reverence for the church as a sacred place, upon our respect for the Blessed Sacrament reserved in the church’s tabernacle, and upon our respect for other people who are there for prayer and reflection. The Church’s liturgical documents ask for these signs of respect and reverence. The Vatican’s rules for the celebration of the liturgy say that “even before the celebration itself, it is commendable that silence be observed in the church, in the sacristy, in the vesting room, and in adjacent areas, so that all may dispose themselves to carry out the sacred action in a devout and fitting manner.” The U.S. bishops write, with regard to respecting Christ’s sacramental presence in the tabernacle, that “it is appropriate for the members of the assembly to greet each other in the gathering space of the church (vestibule), but it is not appropriate to speak in loud or boisterous tones in the body of the church...”
There are other marks of reverence and respect as well. We bow before the altar or genuflect before the tabernacle. We fast for at least an hour before receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, unless illness prevents us from doing so. Some people add signs of reverence and respect that are their personal choices, while still others find themselves to be critical of those who do not follow their interpretations. The challenge, of course, is to not make signs and gestures of reverence and respect to be an end in themselves, as if these were the most important elements in the liturgy. What is most important is what the liturgy means, and not how we externally express those meanings. Jesus, after all, chastised some of the Pharisees, not because they followed all the details of the law and the proper marks of respect, but because they had not really grasped the deeper meaning that their gestures were meant to express and enshrine.
Following the marks of reverence mandated by the official liturgical books ought to be sufficient. We need not arbitrarily add anything or subtract anything. For example, the proper mark of reverence before receiving Holy Communion is a simple bow of the head, not a profound bow from the waist or a genuflection. At the same time, gestures of respect and reverence that might be appropriate for one person or one culture might be extremely difficult for someone else to accept. After all, it may so often seem impossible to leave our personal habits and ideologies and idiosyncrasies aside in favor of what is quite liturgically appropriate in the eyes of the Church, particularly on a special occasion or in a particular cultural context. As liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell observes, “When conch shells blew, rattles shook, and native dancers in Aztec costume snaked their way toward Pope John Paul II as he pronounced the words of canonization for Juan Diego in Mexico during the summer of 2002, did this constitute a breach of liturgical reverence and decorum? Surely not.”